Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Animal Behavior

Two Life-Changing Benefits of Adopting Pets

Pet ownership can be transformative, and you can also make it convenient.

Oleksandr Canary Islands / Pexels
Oleksandr Canary Islands / Pexels

Pet ownership is booming. A recent survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association revealed that close to 90 million U.S. households now own pets. This means there are now more households in the U.S. that own pets than don’t.

The growing acceptance of pet ownership can be attributed, in part, to the maturation of the pet industry. Today, a number of innovative businesses are dedicated to making pet ownership easier, even for individuals with busy lifestyles—like online pet supply stores and in-house veterinary services.

With this context, here are two ways a pet can help you safeguard your mental health.

1. Taking Care of a Pet Can Instill a Sense of Purpose, Which Is Crucial to Well-Being

Most people think well-being has to do with happiness and the absence of physical and mental illness. However, a 2020 paper published in the journal Health and Quality of Life Outcomes analyzed data from 21 countries and found that well-being is rooted in various factors, including having a sense of purpose in life.

This is where a pet can help.

A 2018 study that qualitatively and quantitatively analyzed the effects of pet ownership on people living with a mental health condition found that participants who reported losing their sense of purpose following their diagnosis felt significantly more in control of the direction of their lives after they brought a pet home. Some even went as far as saying that their pet gave them a reason to live.

Research has shown repeatedly that pets have the potential to increase feelings of social support, give owners a sense of meaning, and improve their lifestyles by increasing physical activity and adding structure to daily routines. Pets are also particularly effective in treating and managing conditions such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and dementia, as evidenced by a 2022 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, claiming that owning a pet can reduce one's brain age by up to 15 years.

Then, there’s the question of which type of pet most benefits humans in terms of mental health. Here is what Zach Mills of The Vets — a veterinary care service focused on reducing the stress and anxiety associated with owning a pet by delivering pet care directly to clients’ homes — said when asked about the types of animals that can buffer our mental and emotional health: “The human-animal bond can extend to any number of animals, and different animals and different people will have different responses. There are also people who identify with one species of animal more than another. The individual results that people get can vary. Most of the studies around the benefits of the human-animal bond are done on dogs and horses, but any animal and human can potentially build a beneficial bond.”

This highlights the profound impact of the human-animal bond. It is no wonder that healthcare professionals often recommend pet ownership. In fact, 22 percent of current pet owners received such recommendations, according to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute.

2. Your Pet Can Help You Exercise and Stay Active, a Proven Strategy to Improve Mental Health

There are aspects of owning a pet that will require you to step outside your home. For instance, most breeds of dogs need outdoor exercise to be healthy. “Often, people will see an increased level of physical activity when they own pets, and this activity can lead to overall improved physical and psychological health,” explains Mills.

A 2023 umbrella review of 97 systematic reviews with meta-analyses revealed that exercise may be up to 1.5 times more effective in reducing symptoms of common mental health conditions compared to traditional methods of treatment. The lead author of the review, Ben Singh of the University of South Australia explained, “We found that doing 150 minutes each week of various types of physical activity – such as brisk walking, lifting weights, and yoga – significantly reduces depression, anxiety and psychological distress, compared to usual care, such as medications.”

Before getting a pet to improve your mental health via exercise, confirm that your exercise needs, and those of your soon-to-be pet, are in alignment. While most dogs need regular walks to be healthy, there are differences in how much exercise different breeds can tolerate.

Often, the best way to tackle mental health problems is to pair traditional treatment practices (medication or therapy) with unconventional methods like pet ownership. While pet ownership has positive psychological benefits, it cannot be seen as an alternative to clinical treatment that may be necessary to address a specific mental health condition. A more wholesome approach to treatment that includes pet ownership may be the most effective and rewarding for a patient.

More from Mark Travers Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today