Man playing with a dog, enjoying the mental health benefits of owning a pet

Mental health benefits
of pet ownership

Did you know that almost all pet owners consider their pet to be a family member? If you currently live with a pet, this probably isn’t news to you. In fact, research suggests that owning a pet provides countless mental health, social and even physical health benefits. For example, one survey found that 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements as a result of pet ownership.

Even if you don’t own a pet, you can still reap the mental health benefits of having animals around with 75% of pet owners reporting that the mental health of a friend or family member had improved as a result of a pet.

But did you know that there are other ways in which pets can improve your mental health and overall wellbeing? Here we’ve identified five common health benefits of pet ownership.

 

1) An animal companion can improve your mental health

It’s no coincidence that dogs are often referred to as a ‘man’s best friend.’ The link between dogs and companionship is one that anyone who owns a canine will be familiar with.

It’s just one of the reasons why animal therapy is now an accepted and well-known form of treatment. This form of therapy can be commonly used in places like aged care facilities or hospital recovery wards. Animal therapy also features in mental health treatment, which is why we have animals like therapy dogs to help treat conditions like anxiety and depression. These are animals that are specifically trained to help people with a wide range of mental health concerns, including feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Aside from group therapy and clinical settings, companion animals in general make excellent friends for various reasons. As well as showing their owners unconditional loyalty, love and affection, they also provide a calming presence that can promote a sense of happiness and wellbeing. Research suggests that human-animal interaction has been shown to have measurable clinical benefits, including reductions in stress and even increases in oxytocin levels that play a role in social bonding, sexual reproduction, childbirth, and the period after childbirth. And let’s not forget that even after a bad day, your pet will most likely be glad to see you when you come home!

 

2) Pets can help you deal with stress

Pet ownership can help reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, depression and even loneliness. Merely interacting with a friendly pet can reduce stress levels which can affect how you cope during challenging or high pressure situations. In fact, there is even evidence to suggest that being around your pet can lower blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of heart disease. In one experiment, people had their stress levels measured while spending 10 minutes with cats and dogs. Participants recorded a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone. The study suggested that just 10 minutes of interaction could have a significant impact on our mental and physical health.

 

3) There are social and physical health benefits to owning a pet

Merely caring for a pet brings with it inherent benefits, both physical and social. For instance, taking the dog for a daily walk is a great way to improve cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure. While it may be easy to justify putting off going to the gym, the responsibility of pet ownership means you’ve got a consistent motivation to go outside each day and make sure your pet is happy and healthy. One study found that dog owners were more likely to be social and outgoing because of pet ownership. The research also suggested that pets provided owners with more opportunities to interact with neighbours, with ‘dog owner’ being ranked third in the most common ways people met their neighbours.

 

4) Pet ownership encourages self-care

Research suggests that as well as helping to minimise loneliness and provide a sense of companionship, a pet can help you get on top of your self-care. For example, the sense of responsibility that comes with owning a pet can encourage you to get outside on a daily basis and move around. They provide an incentive to leave the house and can also create a reliable routine. This can in turn give you a renewed sense of meaning or purpose while having a positive impact on both your mental and physical wellbeing. Walking, feeding, training and playing duties are all responsibilities that come with pet ownership and can certainly create a sense of a ‘regular routine’. The fact is, a pet can make us feel needed. Their reliance on us can be a reminder that we need to look after ourselves in order to properly take care of them.

 

5) Talking to pets is ok (and is probably quite healthy)

Do you find it easier to open up to your pets, but perhaps might be more guarded when talking about the same things to other humans? It’s been said that one of the best things about talking to a pet is that they can’t talk back, removing all judgement from us when we reveal our true thoughts or feelings. Indeed, pets can provide a calming presence that could encourage you to open up about your worries or concerns.

Talking to pets may also provide a feeling of reassurance. In fact, research suggests that up to 42% of middle aged men are more likely to turn to their dog for support in tough times instead of those in their social circles. After all, they never cast judgement or make you feel like you’re at risk of receiving unsolicited feedback. Having an emotional bond with a pet can certainly have a positive impact for anyone who struggles to vocalise how they’re feeling.

 

Pets and health

As evidence suggests, pets can have an immense impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. Whether you own one or know someone who does, interaction with pets can bring enjoyment and fulfilment to our lives in countless ways.

 

Need help? You can find support services in northern Queensland or complete a self-administered K10 test for depression and anxiety. You can also join the online mental health forum to talk with like-minded people.