By: Bridgette W. Gottwald, LPC, NCC

“In an age of research when it is tempting to reduce emotions to biochemical reactions and to rely heavily on the technology of medicine, it is refreshing to find that a person’s health and well-being may be improved by prescribing contact with other living things.”

— Michael J. McCulloch, MD, co-founder of Pet Partners

When it comes to mental health, research proves that there are many benefits behind pet ownership and interaction. Although most pet owners are often clear about how much the companionship adds to their lives, the physical and mental benefits aren’t as visible. 

Although pets descend from wild animals, they have “evolved to become acutely attuned” to human behaviors and emotions. For example, many dogs are able to understand the English words we use, as well as interpret tone, body language and gestures. Not only do pets ease loneliness, but they can reduce levels of stress, anxiety and depression as well. Pets fulfill the basic human need for touch. After interacting with pets, most people experience a mutual affection. Stroking, hugging, or touching an animal in any way can immediately soothe and ease anxiety and stress. Typically, having a pet stimulates exercise, which increases endorphins that contribute to a boosted mood. 

Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT)

Clearly, there’s a reason therapy animals exist, and it speaks volumes about the benefits pets can provide. Pet therapy, also known as Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is interaction between a trained animal and a pet handler. The purpose is to help an individual overcome difficulties with mental disorders or health problems. If you’re not able to own a pet, engaging in AAT is a great way to interact with one! If you are looking for a recommendation for an organization, I would highly recommend Pet Partners, which is nationwide non-profit organization. Their mission revolves around improving human health and well-being through the human-animal bond. My English Cream Golden Retriever, Sully, was recently certified as a therapy dog with this company and I’d be happy to connect you if you are interested! You may find us volunteering in hospitals, retirement and nursing homes, schools, libraries, and private practices. I won’t get started on the light and joy that this golden boy brings into my life! Getting a pet could help you make healthy lifestyle changes if you are looking to improve upon your life. 

Benefits of Pet Ownership or Interaction

Research shows that owning a pet, or engaging with one through AAT provides us with many of the benefits listed below. 

 

  • Companionship 
    • Did you know that companionship can help prevent illness and increase longevity? Caring for an animal causes individuals to feel needed and wanted, which can combat symptoms of depression and isolation. 

 

 

  • Easy way to meet new people
    • Pet’s serve as a “social lubricant” and aid in beginning and maintaining friendships. 

 

 

  • Increased exercise
    • Exercising with your pet deepens the connection between the pet owner and animal. Exercise can also help to eradicate behavioral problems that the pet may exhibit. Also, this increase of exercise is likely to cause you to lose weight. 

 

 

  • Reduced anxiety
    • Pets have a way of reminding us to live within the present moment. They don’t worry about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow, which models an appreciation of the “here and now.”

 

 

  • Sensory stress relief 
    • Stress is easily managed by touch and movement. Stroking, petting, or physically interacting with a pet has actually resulted in lowered blood pressure rates as it quickly makes people feel less stressed and more calm. 

 

 

  • Added structure and routine to your day
    • Having a regular schedule and routine keeps animals calm, and it could work for you, too! Life becomes easier when we know what to expect. The pet will demand a routine and schedule with its feeding and exercise needs.  
  • Added meaning and joy to your life
    • As we age, we become unable to do things that previously occupied our time or gave us purpose. Caring for a pet “boosts morale, optimism, and sense of self-worth.”

 

 

  • Connection 
    • Making new friends and staying connected to others is difficult, especially with all of the distractions that daily life throws at us. Pets are a wonderful way to spark conversation with new people or even serve as an ice breaker to begin talking to someone. 

 

 

  • Boosted vitality 

 

    • Dogs and cats in particular “encourage playfulness, laughter and exercise” which results in an energy increase and a stronger immune system! 

It’s important to realize that getting a pet is a huge commitment, so it’s crucial to ensure it’s the right decision for you and your lifestyle before getting one. Even if you are an animal lover, it’s critical that you are fully aware of all that owning a pet entails. Don’t forget to do your research!

Some things to think about before getting a pet…

  • Financial commitment 
  • Required time, energy and effort 
  • Pets can be destructive so ensure your environment is a good fit 
  • Curbed social activity, especially at the beginning when the pet is young 
  • Limited travel or the need for pet care when away from home

Living with Animals 

Two thirds of Americans live with an animal, and 60% of these people truly believe that their pet is an important member of their family. In a survey done by the American Animal Hospital organization, “40% of married female dog owners reported that they received more emotional support from their dog than their husband or kids.” Okay, I think I have done enough convincing, but it sure does seem like a good time to have animals in your life! You’ll be amazed by the emotional and physical benefits it brings you, and I can speak to this on a personal note, too! I have always believed that my clients will get as much out of therapy as they put into it, and I think this rule applies here, too! As much as you put into your relationship with your pet, or visitation with someone else’s, you will reap a surprisingly large amount of benefits.

If you would like to meet with one of our skilled Chicago counselors, please reach out to Symmetry Counseling for a complimentary consultation.

Reference: 

Herzog, H. (2015). Why people care more about pets than other humans. Retrieved from: https://www.wired.com/2015/04/people-care-pets-humans/

Robinson, L. & Segal, J. (2019). The mood boosting power of pets. Retrieved from: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/mood-boosting-power-of-dogs.htm