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Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Dogs (And Other Pets)

As of about three weeks ago I officially joined the group of individuals who adopted a puppy during quarantine. For some time, I’ve been playing with the idea of whether getting a puppy was a good or bad idea based on my lifestyle. Switching to working from home gave me the final push to take the plunge and get a dog. This is easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Dog’s truly are human’s best friends. Being able to take care of something that gives back unconditional love and cuddles (and can’t talk back ☺) is something not to be taken for granted in today’s world.

We are frequently told about the positive impact pets can have on our lives but it’s hard to comprehend what exactly this means without owning a pet yourself or doing research. As I began to feel the positive impacts of having a puppy, my curiosity grew as to where these benefits are coming from and why. I found this was a curiosity many of my clients had as well. Some insight into the mental and physical health benefits of pets, primarily dogs, is discussed below. 

Mental Health Benefits

Dog owners have been shown to have higher levels of serotonin and dopamine (the chemicals in your brain that make you happy) than non-dog owners. These increased levels cause dog parents to be less depressed, stressed and anxious than they would be otherwise.  For owners that are more introverted, having a dog functions as an easy conversation starter making social interactions easier, more pleasant and less forced. For individuals struggling with depression, having an animal that relies on you is a great motivator to get out of bed and get outside and moving. Taking care of something other than yourself can give you a strong sense of purpose and stability which is necessary for maintaining mental health. Having a daily routine/structure commonly leads to an overall sense of productivity and satisfaction. 

The simple presence of a pet can lead to an increase of positive emotions, smiling, and laughing all which benefit mental health. As previously mentioned, being able to care for something that gives back unconditional love can have a great impact on mental health. Pets are nonjudgmental and will love you regardless of the job you hold, relationship you’re in, or friendships you have. Love and happiness are contagious and those are two things you can count on your pet to provide.  

Physical Health Benefits

Dogs, especially puppies, are high-energy animals that require much attention and exercise. They love to run around and play which inevitably leads to their owners running around and playing as well. “According to the American Heart Association, dog owners are 54% more likely to get the recommended amount of exercise than their non-dog owning counterparts”. In addition, dog owners have stronger immune systems due to exposure to pet fur and dandruff. These two factors, exercise and strong immune systems, leads dog parents to see lower blood-pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol levels which then makes them less at risk for heart-disease. Having an external focus of attention for owners can actually lower our cardiovascular response to stress.

Many health conditions and disabilities have been shown to benefit from animal-assisted therapies. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder frequently struggle with interpersonal relationships and connections. Social interaction can be difficult leading to negative experiences at school and with peers. “Classroom-based animal-assisted intervention resulted in a 54 percent increase in social behaviors for children with autism and a 43 percent reduction in physiological indicator of anxious activation.” Benefits have also been shown in veterans struggling with PTSD, depression, social isolation, and persistent hypervigilance and stress. Individuals with physical disabilities greatly benefit emotionally and in the work and school environment by having a trained service dog. This relationship is beneficial to caregivers as well as “caregiver of individuals with service dogs… reported 17 percent less worry.”

If you’ve been playing with the idea of getting a dog/pet and feel you’re ready/able to care for them, consider this your final push!

If you’ve found yourself struggling to effectively manage your mental and physical health, it may be useful to try in-person or online counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our skilled Chicago therapists today! We’re here to help you.

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