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Animal Behavior

Companion Animals and Mental Health

Pet ownership can improve mental health and avert loneliness.

Key points

  • Pets can have a positive impact on physical and mental health.
  • Young adults with psychiatric diagnoses report a decrease in symptoms because of their companion animals.
  • Pets can provide the tactile aspect of life missing for older adults whose spouses have died.

Yesterday, I was the keynote speaker at the HABRI conference. HABRI is an organization that promotes research on the human-animal bond as it impacts physical and emotional health. I was amazed at the wealth of research available on this subject and the participants’ passion.

When I was 10 days old, my father brought home my first best friend. No, it wasn’t a stuffed bear or a doll. It was Bruno, one of several puppies born “out of wedlock” to a neighbor’s dog who had gone into heat and escaped from her backyard. Bruno became my friend, protector, and constant companion. He was the beginning of my lifetime love of animals.

Mental Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

Jonathan Haidt, the author of The Anxious Generation, has a theory about why there has been a dramatic rise in mental health disorders among young adults since 2015 when smartphones became available. He suggests people become more depressed and anxious when they feel socially disconnected and lose the face-to-face contact that leads to meaningful connections. In 2017, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a report indicating that almost half of the U.S. population experiences loneliness daily, which can increase the risk of premature death by 26 percent. Both authors share the same premise—the lack of connection to something or someone contributes to a decline in physical and mental health.

A study undertaken in Perth, Australia, and four American cities investigated the effects of pet ownership on the likelihood that individuals in a community would meet their neighbors and develop some relationships. They specifically asked participants:

  • How or if they had gotten to know neighbors.
  • Whether they owned a pet. If they had a dog, did they walk it?
  • If they met neighbors, did any friendships ensue, and if so, were pets involved?
  • If they made friendships through their pets, did they receive social support from the friendships?

The results indicated that pet ownership was the second most common way for participants to meet their neighbors—dog walking was the most common variable. In each of the four cities, almost a quarter of pet owners met people in the neighborhood through their pets and considered one or more of those they met to be friends.

Early adulthood is a peak time for the emergence of mental health disorders. A study at the University of Edinburgh researched young adults’ experiences of how their companion dogs and cats impacted their mental health symptoms. The participants were between the ages of 18 and 26, and all had a prior psychiatric diagnosis. The results fell into several categories:

  • Social Anxiety and Loneliness: The young adults who had generalized anxiety disorder spoke of how their pets helped reduce anxiety symptoms by promoting a sense of mindfulness, allowing them to focus on the present, and distracting them from their worries. For participants who had specific anxiety problems, pets helped reduce their symptoms by providing a sense of safety. For example, one of the female participants described how her dog helped her to feel safe when she was home alone.
  • Impact on Mood and Stress: One way that pets improved the participants’ moods was through laughter and comic relief. Some described their pets as “cute” and said they “did silly things” to make them laugh. Pets helped these young adults feel better and have a more positive outlook.

For those who reported a history of low mood, a critical benefit of pet ownership was an increased sense of purpose. Some reported that their pets helped them get up and out of bed to engage in healthy activities, such as walking outdoors.

  • Impact on Severe Mental Health and Suicide Prevention: Pets were a deterrent against self-harm and thoughts of suicide.

There is a worldwide increase in the aging population. The aging process is associated with a growing risk of stressors common in later life, which can lead to loneliness and greater dependency on others for social and emotional needs. Pets can play a pivotal role in providing various mental health benefits by protecting against loneliness and depression. Researchers in the United Kingdom studied community-dwelling adults over 65 who were pet owners. The study aimed to determine the effect of pet ownership on the mental health of these older adults. Their findings fell into several categories:

  • Feelings of Comfort and Safety: Pet owners reported their animals could lift their moods by being a “constant” in their lives. All participants discussed positive experiences and memories of how their pets influenced their current situations. One man who suffered from depression said he was improved and happier because of the bond he shared with his pet. Several others mentioned that having a pet satisfied the tactile aspects of life that they found essential and missed after the death of a spouse.
  • Increased Social Engagement: All participants stated that pet ownership meant they engaged in pet-related activities, resulting in increased socialization with friends and family. Their pet acted as a “connector” between themselves and others. The increased socialization led to a sense of belonging in their communities and positively impacted their mental health.
  • Meaningful Life Role: Owning a pet was compared to parenting. Research on older adults shows that parenting and caring for a pet are socially valuable and meaningful. The responsibilities of pet ownership motivate older adults to “get up and do things every day,” which assists in developing a routine. These factors help avoid feeling “useless” and increase self-esteem by creating a sense of purpose.

I am an empty nester, so my animal friends are my in-home children. When I come home from work or vacation and am greeted by four pairs of eyes, wagging tails, and meows, I swear I can feel my blood pressure drop and experience a sense of calm. I am not alone. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is participating in large studies promoting the positive health effects of owning a pet. They can improve cardiovascular health, decrease your body’s production of stress hormones, lower your blood pressure, and provide a lifeline to prevent loneliness.


Haidt, Jonathan. The Anxious Generation. Penguin, 2024.

Hawkins, Roxanne D., et al. “Young Adults’ Views on the Mechanisms Underpinning the Impact of Pets on Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, Frontiers Media SA, Feb. 2024

Hui Gan, Genieve Zhe, et al. “Pet Ownership and Its Influence on Mental Health in Older Adults.” Aging & Mental Health, no. 10, Informa UK Limited, June 2019, pp. 1605–12.

Vivek, Murthy. “New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States | HHS.Gov.” HHS.Gov, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 3 May 2023.

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