The Mental Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
A Look at What Owning a Dog or Cat Can Do for You and Whether You’re Ready to Make the Leap
From the pandemic puppy phase to the trend of more and more senior citizens adopting cats and dogs, pets have proven their staying power across nearly all demographics. In fact, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) found that 70% of households own a pet (69 million U.S. dog-owning households and 45.3 million cat-owning ones). What is it about pets that keep us coming back for more? While cat and/or dog ownership isn’t for everyone due to the responsibilities and your particular stage in life (more on that later), there’s no denying that having pets offers a plethora of mental and physical benefits. From a dog greeting you at the door when you get home to a quintessential cat nuzzle session, pet ownership is more than just checking boxes.
In honor of National Pet Day on April 11, 2023, we’ve shared some of these mental and physical pet ownership benefits below.
The Mental Health Benefits of Pet Ownership
Pets aren’t just sources of comfort and entertainment, although those are two significant benefits. They can also be a source of motivation.
Some of the other mental health benefits of pet ownership are:
- They offer social benefits and connectedness — Walking your dog and/or taking them to dog parks can be a way to meet people. They also provide more social opportunities through training classes or online meetup groups, which can be particularly helpful to introverts seeking more interaction. A study published in PLos One looked at psychological markers of dog owners versus non-dog owners during the pandemic, and dog owners reported fewer feelings of loneliness and symptoms of depression.
- Pet interaction has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol — Cortisol is a stress-related hormone. Some studies have also shown that pets can also boost your mood and reduce loneliness.
- Pet ownership is linked to the feel-good hormone — Just as lower cortisol levels mean lower stress, pet owners have been found to have increased levels of oxytocin, often referred to as “the feel-good hormone.”
- Pets provide a sense of structure and achievement due to their care and daily routine, which can be particularly helpful for people prone to depression. This also tends to lend itself to increased productivity.
- They offer companionship — Pets’ unconditional love can give people, especially seniors, a sense of security.
- Pets boost confidence — The structure and routine lend themselves to this, along with the fact that pets are great listeners! In a world where many of us often feel criticized, pets never judge.
- Pets have been shown to be particularly helpful for people who have ADHD and autism — The planning and responsibilities have been shown to help those with attention deficit issues. At the same time, people who have autism benefit through this unconditional relationship that serves to boost their confidence and social skills while also being linked to helping those with sensory issues.
- Pets can help those battling mental health issues — A review published in BMC Psychiatry in 2018 examined 17 studies on the impact of pet ownership on those living with mental health conditions. The review found many benefits, and pet ownership was shown to be particularly beneficial for veterans and others living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Physical Benefits of Pet Ownership
On top of the companionship and other mental health benefits that pets offer mentioned above, having a pet can make you feel better physically as well.
Some of the physical benefits of pet ownership are as follows:
- Pets promote activity — Increased activity is the most obvious physical benefit of pet ownership. While not as much in the case of cats, per se, dogs need walks to go to the bathroom and hopefully to keep them physically fit. Getting outside for physical exercise promotes restful sleep, better moods, and improved mental health. Walking your dog for just 30 minutes a day, five times a week, can help you reach the Department of Health and Human Services’ weekly recommendation of at least 150 minutes of exercise.
- Pet ownership is linked to lower blood pressure — Whether due to increased activity or lower stress levels, studies have found that people with pets had lower base heart rates and blood pressure. Pet owners also experienced smaller heart rate and blood pressure increases during times of stress, with these rates also returning to normal more quickly.
- Pet ownership decreases stress — This can be filed under mental and physical benefits! Pet ownership has been linked to lower cortisol (stress) levels, a positive physical effect since stress has been linked to decreased sleep, heart disease, digestion issues, and more.
- Dogs can serve to increase mindfulness and reduce pain — Dr. Ann Berger, a physician, and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, has said, “The foundations of mindfulness include attention, compassion, and awareness. All those things are things that animals bring to the table. People have to learn it. Animals do this innately.” Dr. Berger has used mindfulness in her attempts to reduce pain in cancer patients.
- Pet ownership has been linked to helping kids with diabetes — Who knew feeding fish could have such benefits? However, a study showed that type 1 diabetic teens who were tasked with feeding fish became more disciplined about checking their own blood glucose levels, which is essential for their good health.
Find Out Whether Pet Ownership is Right for You
While the purpose of this blog post was to share the many benefits of pet ownership, we want to recognize that it isn’t for everyone. And pet ownership might not be right for you now but perfect for you down the road. As veterinarians, the last thing we want to tout is pet ownership for all, as we see far too many pets get re-homed when people aren’t prepared.
Some questions to ask yourself about pet ownership are:
- How much outdoor space do I have?
- How much money do I have for veterinary bills, food, toys, insurance, etc.?
- How much time do I have to spend with my pet?
- How active am I?
- Am I allergic to pets?
- Do I live in a rental place that allows pets?
And these questions may not even preclude you from pet ownership. For example, if you don’t have much outdoor space, you might not want to get a dog, but you could get an indoor cat. If you’re not very active, you could look into dog breeds that don’t require as much exercise (that rules out huskies!). It’s simply about looking at your lifestyle and deciding whether it lends itself to you being a responsible and loving pet parent.
If you’re thinking of making the pet plunge, perhaps you might consider getting your feet wet first. You could volunteer at a shelter, offer to dog or cat-sit for friends, or even foster pets in need. When you do any or all these things, you’ll be better prepared to make an informed decision about whether pet ownership is for you.
As you can see, pet ownership has many physical and mental perks! We should point out, however, that many of the studies in this area suggest links between these things as opposed to cause-and-effect relationships.
If you’re considering getting a cat or dog but still have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask us. If you’ve recently adopted a pet and need to get them in for their first wellness exam and preventive care regimen, call us today!