In a recent Verywell Mind survey, we found that 47% of Americans currently in therapy say they also spend time with pets to help with their mental health. Among the most popular mental self-care activities named by respondents, this was second only to reading.
We spoke to Jenna Stregowski, Registered Vet Tech (RVT) and a Pet Health & Behavior Editor at Daily Paws for some insight into how the human and pet relationship can be mutually beneficial and promote the mental health of our furry friends as well as ourselves.
How Pets Lower Stress
Research shows that, unless you’re someone who really dislikes animals or is absolutely too busy to care for one properly, pets can provide excellent social support, stress relief, and other health benefits—perhaps more than people.1
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these effects took on an even greater importance as people became more isolated from others. “I think those of us with pets were the lucky ones,” Stregowski says.
She adds that when the world changed and many found themselves with a lot more time at home, it benefited both humans and animals alike. “People had more time to provide exercise, play, and training, all of which help reinforce the human-animal bond,” she says. The added time together was good for us—and good for our pets.
The following are more health benefits of pets.
For those who love animals, it’s virtually impossible to stay in a bad mood when a pair of loving puppy eyes meets yours, or when a super-soft cat rubs up against your hand. In addition to the social support, stress relief, and general health benefits pets can bring, research supports the mood-enhancing benefits of pets. A 2017 study found that those with AIDS were less likely to suffer from depression if they owned a pet.2
Reduce Blood Pressure
Yes, it’s true. While ACE inhibiting drugs can generally reduce blood pressure, they aren’t as effective in controlling spikes in blood pressure due to stress and tension.
Research has concluded since the mid-1980’s that there are positive physiological effects, especially lowered blood pressure, to petting dogs and social interaction with companion animals. Touch, the actual act of petting the dog, appeared to be the major component of the so-called pet effect.3
Whether we walk our dogs because they need it, or are more likely to enjoy a walk when we have companionship, dog owners do spend more time walking than non-pet owners, at least if we live in an urban setting.
Most people with dogs will likely tell you that they enjoy their walks more because of the companionship of their pets, and perhaps even the feeling of being part of a community of other pet lovers. Because exercise is good for stress management and overall health, owning a dog can be credited with increasing these benefits.
And as Stregowski notes, regular exercise is great for your pets too.
Provide Social Support
When we’re out walking, having a dog with us can make us more approachable and give people a reason to stop and talk, thereby increasing the number of people we meet, giving us an opportunity to increase our network of friends and acquaintances, which also has great stress management benefits.4
Offer Company and Unconditional Love
Pets can be there for you in ways that people can’t. They can offer love and companionship, and can also enjoy comfortable silences, keep secrets, and are excellent snugglers. And they could be the best antidote to loneliness.
“I believe that pets help fulfill our human need for companionship, love, and physical touch,” Stregowski says. “Animals are not burdened with the complexities of human living and offer us some respite from our worldly concerns, like work and finances.”
In fact, one study found that nursing home residents reported less loneliness when visited by dogs alone than when they spent time with dogs and other people.5 All these benefits can reduce the amount of stress people experience in response to feelings of social isolation and lack of social support from people.
Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Loneliness
Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring singer/songwriter Grace Gaustad, shares how to deal with feelings of loneliness. Click below to listen now.
Pets vs. People
While we all know the power of talking about your problems with a good friend who’s also a good listener, research shows that spending time with a pet may be even better.
One study showed that, when conducting a task that’s stressful, people actually experienced less stress when their pets were with them than when a supportive friend or even their spouse was present.6 This may be partially due to the fact that pets don’t judge us; they just love us.
Can We Benefit From Any Pet?
While dogs and cats are obviously the most popular house pet, Stregowski says she has seen all kinds of pets that enrich the lives of their people, including reptiles and even rats.
“Even looking at fish in an aquarium can be a type of meditation,” she says.
So even if your pet friends aren’t exactly as furry or as Instagram-friendly as cats and dogs, you can still reap the benefits of caring for an animal.
Your Pet Can Benefit, Too
With the rise in remote or flexible work in the wake of the pandemic, many people will continue to have extra time with their pets that they didn’t have before. This should allow for continued engagement that can keep a pet happy and healthy.
But for essential workers or those who are back in an office setting more regularly, Stregowski says it’s important to set and stick to a routine through what may be a difficult time for your pet. “Include daily time for exercise, play, and snuggle time if that’s something your pet enjoys,” she says. “Plan a few brief training sessions a week to keep your pet sharp. You might also consider leaving interactive or treat-dispensing toys behind for your pets.”
Stregowski says mental health is just as important for our pets as it is for us. “Our pets may not have the same complex thoughts and emotions, but they can easily experience anxiety and depression.” Because most animals aren’t traditionally suited for a sedentary lifestyle, it’s on us to make sure they don’t get bored or frustrated.
Her solution—”Play games your pet enjoys in order to provide mental and physical activity. It will be fun for you too.”
A Word From Verywell
It’s important to realize that owning a pet isn’t for everyone. Pets do come with additional work and responsibility, which can bring its own stress. However, for most people, the benefits of having a pet outweigh the drawbacks. Having a furry best friend can reduce stress in your life and bring you support when times get tough.