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The Mental Health Benefits of Owning a Pet: The Pet Effect

Danielle Bertini, LPC

It is no secret that living in today’s world it can be easy to get caught up in the high-demand, fast-paced environment. Smartphones, social media, Internet, and constant text messages can quickly become overwhelming. Aside from some of the more “traditional” ways to fight daily stressors, such as yoga, meditation, exercise, etc., there is another way to be able to find help right at home, in the form of a wet nose or a wagging tail. 

This has been called the Pet Effect. The Pet Effect, also known as the human-animal bond, is the mutually beneficial relationship between people and animals that positively impacts the health and well being of both (Feldman, 2017). Ask any pet owner (myself included!) and they will tell you the power of constant companionship, love and affection. In a 2016 survey done by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership, and 75% of pet owners reported a friend’s or family member’s mental health has improved because of the pets in their lives. 

The field of human-animal bond research is a growing and dedicated field in studying the health benefits of human-animal interaction. Positive human-animal interacted is related to the changes in physiological variables in both humans and animals, including a reduction of subjective psychological stress (fear, anxiety) and an increase of oxytocin (the ‘love hormone’) levels in the brain (Feldman, 2017). 

The Mental Health Foundation notes several ways in which pets can be a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation for their owners across a variety mental health struggles (Pets and Mental Health, 2018):

  • Depression– Pets can be a great motivator for people. For example, dogs can be especially great at encouraging owners to exercise, which can be beneficial for those suffering from depression. Stroking, sitting next to, or playing with a pet gives owners a chance to relax and calm their minds. Caring for a pet can also give your day purpose and reward, and a sense of achievement, which can help you feel valuable and needed.
  • Socializing– Walking a dog often leads to conversations with other dog owners, whether this be at a dog park or through the neighborhood. This can help owners stay connected and less withdrawn. Studies have shown that people who have more social relationships and friendships tend to be mentally healthier, so one can see why taking your pet on a walk can be a positive step toward your mental health.
  • Children with ADHD– Pets need to play, and playing with a pet is a great way to release excess energy. Children can burn off energy walking a dog or running around with a kitten, making them more relaxed later in the day and calmer at night. Fresh air and good circulation from aerobic exercise increases oxygen-filled blood flow to a child’s brain, therefore increasing their ability to concentrate.
  • Autism– Sensory issues are common among children with autism. Sensory integration activities are designed to help them get used to the way something feels against their skin or how it smells or sounds. Dogs and horses have both been used for this purpose. Children with autism often find it calming to work with animals. Similarly, it has been claimed that in the case of people with autism, animals can reduce stereotyped behavior, lessen sensory sensitivity, and increase the desire and ability to connect socially with others. 

 

All in all, it is of no surprise that 98% of pet owners in the 2016 HABRI survey agree that their pet is an important part of their family. However, it is important to note that owning a pet is a major commitment. Even if you love animals, it is important to understand everything that caring for a pet entails. This article lists some of the potential drawbacks are to owning a pet. 

If you don’t have the time, money, or stamina to own a pet full-time, there are still ways you can experience the health benefits of being around animals. Even short periods spent with a dog or cat can benefit both you and the animal. You can ask to walk a neighbor’s dog, for example, or volunteer at an animal shelter. Most animal shelters or rescue groups welcome volunteers to help care for homeless pets or assist at adoption events. You’ll not only be helping yourself, but also helping to socialize and exercise the animals, making them more adoptable.

References

2016 Pet Owners Survey. (2016). Retrieved from https://habri.org/2016-pet-owners-

survey

Feldman, S. (2017, August 21). For Better Mental Health, Experience the Pet Effect. 

Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/blog/better-mental-health- experience-pet-effect

Pets and Mental Health. (2018, August 14). Retrieved from 

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/p/pets-and-mental-health

Robinson, L., & Segal, J. (2019, June). Mood-Boosting Power of Pets. Retrieved from 

https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/mood-boosting-power-of-dogs.htm

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