It is estimated that nearly 80 million dogs and 85 million cats are owned in the United States. Most pet owners think of their animals as members of the family, and many believe that their pets take care of them just as much as they look after their pets. Pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and less risk of heart disease than those without pets. They also tend to be more physically active and have fewer allergies. There are so many reasons for us to be thankful for our pets! In honor of today, National Love Your Pet Day, we wanted to highlight one of the most important reasons we should be thankful for our furry friends, the great benefits they have on our mental health. Here are four ways pets can help to improve our mental health.
Anxiety sucks. You start worrying, and then you start worrying about the worrying. All that worrying can quickly turn into stress, discomfort, poor sleep, and other issues. Pets are great at reducing anxiety. You can tell them your problems without fear of judgment. They love unconditionally, and they keep you company when you would otherwise be alone with your thoughts. Petting your animal can be therapeutic and calming, and it can help you take your mind off the bad stuff. One study showed that even a 12-minute visit with a therapy dog was enough to reduce anxiety levels in hospital patients with heart failure.1
Pets are great companions for fending off depression. They offer unconditional love and accept us no matter what else is going on in our lives. They keep us company and instill us with a sense of purpose when we may not feel one otherwise. Pets have been shown to have positive effects on individuals with depression in both the short and long term. Just four weeks with animal-assisted therapy led to a significant increase in positive interactions between psychiatric inpatients compared to those without the therapy in one study.2 On the longer end of the spectrum, another study noted a decrease in depression over the course of two years in elderly residents of a nursing home with a resident dog and in those with dog visiting weekly.
Social isolation is a big problem for many Americans these days, but animals can be amazing social facilitators for making introductions, building friendships, and forming social network support systems. The social connections formed through your pets can help to combat loneliness and promote a sense of belonging. A recent study showed that pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners.3 It also found that around 40% of participating pet owners reported having one or more types of social support from people they met through their pet.
Stress affects us all, and it tends to affect us in more significant ways than we realize. Pets are wonderful at reducing stress. The stress responses of individuals interacting with their own dogs or unfamiliar therapy dogs was measured in a recent study.4 The results showed a reduction in self-reported stress levels and blood pressure for both the owners and those interacting with therapy dogs. Other studies have shown that simply being around our pets reduces our negative reactions to stressful situations. Pet owners are likely to get more exercise and feel less lonely than non-pet owners, both of which contribute to lowering stress levels. Pets also help with stress by fulfilling our need for touch. That’s right, petting your pet is just as therapeutic for you as it is for them!
As you can see animals have their own special ways of looking after us. Love your pet, and remember the many ways in which they take care of us, even if they aren’t as obvious as the ways we take care of them.
1Cole KM , Gawlinski A , Steers N , et al. Animal-assisted therapy in patients hospitalized with heart failure. Am J Crit Care 2007; 16: 575–585, quiz 586, discussion 587–588. https://doi.org/10.4037/ajcc2007.16.6.575
2Carolyn A. Marr, Linda French, Donna Thompson, Larry Drum, Gloria Greening, Jill Mormon, Irie Henderson & Carroll W. Hughes (2000) Animal-Assisted Therapy in Psychiatric Rehabilitation, Anthrozoös, 13:1, 43-47, DOI: 10.2752/089279300786999950
3Wood L, Martin K, Christian H, Nathan A, Lauritsen C, et al. (2015) The Pet Factor – Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. PLOS ONE 10(4): e0122085. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0122085
4Sandra B. Barker, Janet S. Knisely, Nancy L. McCain, Christine M. Schubert & Anand K. Pandurangi (2010) Exploratory Study of Stress-Buffering Response Patterns from Interaction with a Therapy Dog, Anthrozoös, 23:1, 79-91, DOI: 10.2752/175303710X12627079939341
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