How to cope with change
Get useful tools and strategies to help you cope with change and care for your mental health.Read more
Does having a pet help with depression? Do dogs help with anxiety? Animal companionship has been shown to have a wide range of mental health benefits.
If you live with a pet, then you probably won’t be surprised to know that almost all pet owners consider their pet to be a family member. In fact, there’s a heap of research that says the benefits of owning a pet provide 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, while 75% of pet owners said 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 wellbeing?
Below are five common benefits of having companion animals as pets.
The link between dogs and companionship is one that anyone who owns a canine will be familiar with. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that dogs are often referred to as a ‘man’s best friend.’
It’s one of the reasons why pet therapy (often called animal therapy or animal-assisted therapy) is a recognised form of treatment. It is not uncommon in places like aged care facilities or cancer and stroke recovery wards. Unsurprisingly, it also features in mental health treatment, which is why we have animals like therapy dogs for depression and anxiety. These are animals that are specifically trained to help people with a wide range of mental health concerns, include things like feelings of loneliness and social isolation.
Outside of group therapy and clinical settings, companion dogs (and companion animals in general) make excellent friends for various reasons. Not only do they tend to show their owners unconditional love, loyalty and affection, they also provide a calming presence that can help with happiness and wellbeing. Human-animal interaction has been shown to have measurable clinical benefits, including reductions in stress and even increases in oxytocin levels (the so-called ‘love drug or ‘love hormone’).
Of course, there’s a lot to be said for the fact that, even after a lousy day, your pet will probably be glad to greet you when you come home.
Merely owning a pet can help reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. Interacting with a friendly pet can reduce stress levels which in turn can affect how you cope during high pressure or difficult situations. There is even evidence that being around your pet can lower blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of heart disease.
In one experiment, people had their stress levels measured with therapy dogs before and after being subjected to a stressful situation. Participants recorded less stress and anxiety after interacting with familiar therapy dogs, suggesting that close interaction with your favourite four-legged mate can have a de-stressing effect.
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 can even lower blood pressure. Whereas it can 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.
If you’re struggling with emotional or mental health issues, a pet can help you get on top of your self-care. For example, you may be surprised by the renewed sense of meaning and purpose that you feel after adopting a pet.
One reason for this is that 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 effectively take care of them.
A reliable routine can also be counted among the mental health benefits of owning a pet. Walking, feeding, playing and litter box / back yard duties are all governed by regularity, something which can help give life a sense of structure.
Why do so many of us find it easier to open up to our pets, but might be more guarded about talking about the same things to other human beings? It’s been said that one of the best things about talking to a pet is that they can’t talk back. Indeed, pets can provide a calming presence that could encourage you to take down walls and open up about your worries or concerns.
Talking to pets may also provide a feeling of reassurance. There’s even some research that suggests a lot of guys feel more comfortable ‘opening up’ to their dogs than they do to people. After all, they never cast judgement or make you feel like you’re at risk of copping unsolicited feedback.
The fact that the vocal tone used by adults to speak to babies is remarkably similar to that used when speaking to someone we love (human or animal) suggests that we may feel more at ease around our animals.
Pets can bring immense enjoyment and fulfilment to people’s lives. As a growing body of evidence suggests, pets can also be of great help to the owners’ emotional, physical and mental health.
MensLine Australia is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with professional counsellors providing information and support for all relationship issues.