If you’re on the fence about adding a pet to your family, here is something in the ‘plus’ category: Pets can be very good for your mental health and well-being. As a mental health professional for more than 27 years, I’ve seen in my practice as well as my own life, how pets can truly make a difference. Whether it’s a dog, cat, bird or fish, many studies prove the benefits of sharing your home with a pet.
Our little “shorkipoo,” Ollie, has been with our family for three years now. He was a gift to our youngest daughter, but this little guy with a big voice has brought a lot of joy and happiness to our family as well as to friends and our neighborhood. (I think more people know where “Ollie” lives than where we live!)
Pets Improve Our Well Being
Just ask nearly any pet owner and you’ll hear how spending time with an animal helps them relax and alleviate stress. While the phrase “emotional support animal” has become commonplace, the science behind the “pet effect” is beginning to back up the claim that pets improve our well-being.
So how about those studies? For starters, they’ve found that:
- Service dogs aid treatment for military members and veterans struggling with PTSD
- Pet ownership benefits those experiencing mental health problems
- Therapy dogs reduce stress and increase feelings of well-being in college students
A lot of research is also being done on how animals can help children who have conditions like autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and others, be more comfortable and present in the classroom.
According to the Mental Health Foundation of the United Kingdom, “a pet can be a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation for their owners. In many ways, pets can help us to live mentally healthier lives.” I’ve seen this in my own life. My father lights up when we bring Ollie over for a visit. And when my late mother was ill with cancer, Ollie always put a smile on her face.
So What Is It about Pets that Makes Such a Difference?
Pet ownership creates a sense of responsibility. In turn, that sense of responsibility promotes many positive behaviors with benefits for both our behavioral and physical health. Regular exercise, for example, helps improve mood and well-being. When you take a nice long walk with your dog, you get a physical workout as well as the emotional satisfaction of bonding with and caring for your pet. I walk Ollie at least a couple of times a day, rain or shine, and have him to thank for sticking with my exercise routine!
Pet ownership has social benefits. Walking a pet gets you out of the house and into your community, where you can greet old friends, meet new people and interact with other pet owners. In our case, a walk around the block that should take three minutes can take 30 because every little kid wants to pick up Ollie or pet him.
Caring for a pet requires following a routine and building some structure into your day. While the schedule you follow actually may be one you set up for your pet, just having a regular routine in the first place can be an important accomplishment for many struggling with their mental health.
Stroking a dog, cat or other animal helps reduce stress. In fact, even just the companionship of having a pet around can be a source of comfort and relaxation. When my daughter comes home from school, Ollie is first on the scene, showering her with unconditional love and affection. What better way to decompress from the day?! Pet ownership can also counteract feelings of loneliness and help ward off anxiety, and can establish a sense of pride or achievement. This benefits all of us and can be very important to someone with depression or anxiety.
Volunteer or Visit
If you’re unable to have a pet, consider volunteering at a local animal shelter or visiting a friend with a pet. Many of the benefits of time spent with animals can be realized after even a short time spent together (though the effects tend to be strongest between a pet and its owner). If larger pets are out of the question, think about a guinea pig or fish. Even these more “low-maintenance” pets can help you de-stress and build resiliency.
David Miers, PhD, LIPC
David Miers, PhD, LIPC, is the Counseling and Program Development Manager for mental health services at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, Neb.