How Pets Can Support Mental Health (Experts Explain)

By Kieran Beckles
Updated on 13 September 2022

Pets can play an important role in our health and mental wellbeing.

They can help to reduce stress and anxiety, provide a sense of purpose with a daily routine, open up the chance to meet fellow dog lovers and provide a sense of calm when pet parents are feeling overwhelmed.

I’ve previously experienced prolonged periods of heightened anxiety and panic attacks due to uncomfortable life changes or increased stress at work.

As someone who owns two Alaskan Klee Kai dogs, I know that my pets played an important role in supporting my mental health.

In this article, we spoke to a number of experts and pet owners to learn more about the ways that pets can support mental health.

Owner feeds her dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Owner feeds her dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

They Can Encourage Us To Engage In New Routines

Dr Elyssa Helfer, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist At Elevated Healing Center

One of the most important things we can do when we experience depression is behavioral activation, essentially attempting to reintegrate previously pleasurable or health promoting activities back into our lives. Pets allow us to bypass some of the lack of motivation or even dread that comes along with low mood as we have a responsibility to care for another being. The ownership of pets typically encourages us to engage in new routines and regularity in our schedules, which again, is vital when dealing with mood dysregulation.

In addition, in a time of immense isolation and disconnection, pets can offset feelings of loneliness. They invite energy and vibrancy into our homes just by existing in our space. Not only can they share in our joy, but many animals have the ability to sense our pain and respond with unconditional support and love. Overall, pets are an excellent addition to our lives and can certainly support and in some cases, improve our mental health.

They Can Help You Relax And Practice Mindfulness

Richard West, Founder At Puppy Hero

• Reduce Stress – Pets are your companions in times of stress. When you are back from a stressful day at work, all you would want to do is cuddle in bed with your furry friends. Just a pat on your dog’s back can help lower your stress levels. Your pets can play a significant role in helping you relax and practice mindfulness.

• Provide A Sense Of Purpose – If it seems like there is no direction in your life, having a pet becomes a necessity. You can keep pets to help give your life a sense of purpose. Having your furry friends around can help improve your mental well-being. This includes ailments such as depression and anxiety. It ensures that you are never alone, which helps keep the wicked thoughts away.

Owner high fives dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Owner high fives dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Pets Have A Natural Ability To Live In The Present

Paola Cuevas, Veterinarian And Behaviorist At Hepper.com

We, humans, are gregarious and social animals who also need companionship, reassurance, and affirmation to be well. We are also overthinkers and have a hard time letting go of what no longer serves us and a tendency to spend time worrying about the future. This way of living is at the core of many mental health issues such as trauma, regret, anxiety, and fear.

Pets have a natural ability to simply live in the here and now. Seeing a pet enjoying the simple but great things in life teaches us a great lesson, their joy is contagious and motivating.

Pets Help Us Enjoy Life

Carrie Nydick Finch, Deputy Director of Programs and Strategy At PAWS NY

Here at PAWS NY, we provide daily pet care support (dog walking, litter box maintenance, etc.) that allows our clients to stay at home with their pets for as long as possible. Our clients report that their pets reduce their feelings of loneliness and isolation, give them a sense of purpose, and provide companionship and familial affection.

This feedback is in line with what we see in numerous studies, like the 2019 University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging, which found that pet owners reported that ‘pets help them enjoy life (88%), make them feel loved (86%), reduce stress (79%), provide a sense of purpose (73%), and help them stick to a routine (62%), among other benefits.’

Additionally, research indicates that the human-animal bond can have a positive impact on physical and emotional health including improved immunity and cardiovascular health; increased socialization; decreased feelings of depression, loneliness, and other psychological distress; faster recovery from stressful events; lower cortisol levels and blood pressure; and increased release of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.

Owner cuddles her dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Owner cuddles her dog (Photo: Adobe Stock)

They Can Help With Loneliness

Daniel Caughill, Co-Founder Of The Dog Tale

One of the most common and heartbreaking parts of aging is a tragic sense of loneliness. Seniors often spend significant amounts of time at home alone. And even if they’re not alone, they’re at a point in their life where many of their friends and family have passed on.

One of the best tools for combatting senior loneliness is caring for a pet. Grandkids are a joy to most seniors, but they can only visit for so long. However, a dog or cat will faithfully stay by their owner’s side for life, with all the affection they can give.

On top of that, caring for a pet on a daily basis gives seniors a sense of purpose. The owner will have a dependent to feed, entertain, and walk on a daily basis, and this sense of purpose, companionship, and daily exercise can go a long way in preventing loneliness, anxiety, and stress.

They Can Open Up Social Possibilities

Jacquelyn Kennedy, Founder & CEO At PetDT

• They provide companionship – Pets become a part of your family and they can offer invaluable companionship to even the loneliest of people, especially pets of high-interaction such as dogs or cats.

• They enforce structure and routine within your life – When caring for a pet there are certain routines and habits that you have to follow, and this can add structure to your own life. It can help with having a set timetable for everyday activities, which boosts mental health.

• They encourage an increase in physical activity – Some pets, for example, dogs, will have the need to go on walks and spend time outdoors or performing physical activities. This causes you to also engage in physical activity and the outdoors, which is massively beneficial for many mental health conditions.

• They boost self-confidence – Taking care of an animal can make you feel useful, and it can highlight positive skills and qualities in yourself that help boost your self-confidence and overall wellbeing.

• They open up the social possibilities of a community – Having a pet can introduce you to a wide community of pet-owners, and you can meet people in a variety of ways, increasing your social activity.

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