A Pet Could Boost Your Mental Health

Research shows companion animals improve the well-being of adults and kids.

Posted Feb 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

cherryandbees/Adobe Stock
Source: cherryandbees/Adobe Stock

If you don't have a pet, you may think about what caring for an animal entails: feeding, training, cleaning up after and paying veterinary bills. But most pet owners understand that pets provide them with benefits as well.

Based on surveys completed before the global pandemic, the American Pet Products Association estimated that about 85 million U.S. households owned a pet in 2019. In separate surveys conducted since the start of the pandemic, the association estimates that an additional 11 million U.S. households adopted new pets in the past year.

Given the stress and isolation of pandemic life, it’s possible some adopters were drawn to pet ownership for the benefits: Researchers across the globe have repeatedly found that owning a companion animal yields significant health benefits, including improved mental health.

A systematic review published by psychologists from the University of Liverpool identified 17 studies that looked at the effects of pet ownership on people experiencing mental health problems. They found companion animals do improve mental well-being. Studies showed pets were especially helpful to military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and people with depression

What is it about pet ownership that is therapeutic? The researchers found pet owners benefited from the companionship and “unconditional love” their pets provide. Pets were especially beneficial for people living alone. In addition, people with pets made social connections with strangers out in public, and were more likely to have positive interactions with family and friends.

The authors did find some negative aspects to owning a pet, including difficulty finding rental housing. And pet owners were found to worry and experience guilt if they believed their pets misbehaved. But overall, the review found that pets improve the well-being of people with mental health problems.

A second review article by researchers from the University of Queensland included 52 studies examining the health benefits of pet ownership for older adults. The authors found that older adults who owned pets experienced a higher quality of life and were less likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, participants with dementia who owned pets exhibited fewer behavioral and psychiatric symptoms.

There is clear evidence that pets are good for kids as well. A review article published by researchers from the United Kingdom identified 22 studies that measured the impact of pet ownership on children’s emotional, social, cognitive and behavioral development.

There were significant benefits for children living with pets, including a lowered risk of anxiety and  higher self-esteem. In families with pets, children were less likely to experience serious mental health problems.

Although not as conclusive, the review also found some evidence that children with pets were more likely to demonstrate empathy and higher levels of social interaction, especially for children who reported feeling a special bond with their pets. 

But the researchers point out that other aspects of pet owners' lives may actually account for the benefits to kids. Using statistical analysis, they found many of the benefits disappeared when they factored in race, homeownership, parental health and wealth. In other words, the mental health benefits of pet ownership in families may actually be due to differences in wealth and social class.

To date, we lack comprehensive evidence about the impact of pet ownership on mental health during the pandemic. But one survey of nearly 6,000 people living in England during the initial COVID-19 lockdown found owning a pet did prevent, to some degree, feelings of loneliness and other mental health symptoms.

Researchers admit that more evidence is needed to completely understand the benefits of pet ownership. But based on the current evidence base, the take-home message is clear: A companion animal is good for your mental well-being.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.