As we recognize May as Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re celebrating the ways that pets and mental health go together. And there are so many! According to a 2016 pet owner survey, 74% of pet owners reported that owning pets has improved their mental health. And 75% of pet owners said that pet ownership has improved the mental health of a friend or family member. Supporting evidence is strong, and researchers and veterinarians are working to get the word out.
Read on to learn more about the human-animal bond and the powerful connection between pets and mental health.
1. Pets Reduce Our Stress
We all feel stress; it’s part of being human. But luckily for us, the power to alleviate stress is one of the best parts of being canine (or feline!). The simple act of petting a furry animal can lower blood pressure and heart rates. And the tail-wagging and purring we get in return can warm our hearts and heighten the calming effect.
There’s a reason for this relationship between pet therapy and mental health: Pets can perform a special kind of magic. When we pet and cuddle with our furry buddies, our brains release “feel good,” or happiness hormones, and we experience a decrease in stress hormones. This process boosts mood and can even relieve pain.
So snuggle up! It’s good for both of you.
2. Pets Help Us Fight Off Depression
Having a bad day? Chances are your fur baby has your back. Pets have an uncanny way of sensing when we’re down, and they’re often right there to comfort us. They crawl into our laps, stay close and even kiss our tears away.
Pets help us to fight depression in part because they’re not self-sufficient (sorry, cat parents!). They count on us to take care of them. This need for caretaking gets us up and moving when we’d rather stay in bed or binge-watch Netflix from the couch. The dog needs walking, or the cat needs her breakfast. Having someone else’s needs to see to takes our minds off our own troubles.
3. Pets Help with Social Isolation and Loneliness
We know that pets can have a significant impact on quality of life and mental health. This is particularly true for anyone who lives alone or is otherwise socially isolated. Pets help to relieve loneliness and increase socialization.
Pet ownership can also give older adults or others who live alone a sense of purpose and add meaning to their lives. Pets provide comfort and companionship and can even foster the formation of friendships.
This is especially true for dog owners who walk their dogs. It gets them out of the house, where they often run into neighbors who are working in their yards or walking their own dogs. These incidental meetings are excellent opportunities to strike up conversations.
4. Pets Encourage Exercise and Activity
Speaking of dog walking, dog parents know that exercise is essential to a dog’s health and well-being, and too little of it can cause behavior problems.
Exercise is a critical component of mental health for humans, too; the more we do it, the better we feel.
Our dogs motivate us to get off the couch and take a walk. A recent study shows that people who walk their dogs are more likely to reach a healthy level of moderate-intensity physical activity overall — an outcome that’s good for the heart and soul.
5. Pets Make Us Healthier and More Resilient
Owning pets can improve our physical health and resiliency. Doctors overwhelmingly agree: 97% of physicians who responded to a recent survey feel there are health benefits to owning a pet. What’s more, 75% reported that they saw improvement in the physical health of one or more patients, and 87% said they saw improvement in patients’ mood or outlook.
That’s powerful medicine! So how do pets do it?
For starters, they offer unconditional love, which can increase confidence and self-esteem in their humans. And the care and exercise they require can boost our mental and physical health.
And remember those happiness hormones? They produce physical as well as psychological benefits to pet ownership, both of which may contribute to improved resiliency.
Have You Hugged Your Pet Today?
So what does all of this mean for mental health awareness? Simply that pet ownership can make us happier, healthier, less lonely, and more likely to exercise – all of which contribute to our mental health.
So in honor of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month, hug your pets. It will not only make you happy — it will make you better.