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5 Ways Companion Animals Boost Mental Health

Having pets can improve your sense of well-being and outlook on life.

Key points

  • Pets can improve both our physical and mental health.
  • Animals provide companionship that may not be available from humans.
  • Companion animals remind us to be in the present, content with who and where we are.
  • Animals can help alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.
Companion animals can improve our mental health.
Source: JensEnemark/Pixabay

Did you adopt or purchase a companion animal while staying at home during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic? If you answered yes, you may have made a great choice to boost your health. Research shows that not only do pets have a significant positive impact on physical health, pets also enhance mental health.

Here are five ways your companion animal may be improving your mental well-being.

1. Increasing Physical Activity

Whether you have a dog, cat, rabbit, or horse, animals likely increase your physical activity level. There are the obvious ways animals increase our activity, such as walking the dog or cleaning a horse’s stall. There are also less obvious ways we live more active lives when we have pets. We may clean the cat box or aquarium, throw a ball, groom, or play with our animal companions.

Each of these activities increases our physical activity, and physical activity improves mental health in myriad ways. Not only are there direct links to stress, anxiety, and depression reduction among people who increase their activity levels but exercise also improves self-esteem, mood, and cognitive function. While you certainly can increase your activity level without a pet, the subtle increases in activity animals create can add up to better mental function.

2. Reducing Stress

Stroking an animal that sits on our lap, feeling its warmth and closeness—these can send our stress levels down. Johns Hopkins Medicine reports that petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol and can trigger the release of oxytocin, the hormone of social bonding that is also released when mothers breastfeed their babies.

The purr of a cat also reduces stress. The American Kennel Club suggests that a cat’s purr not only reduces stress but can also lower blood pressure and even promote healing of physical and psychological conditions.

3. Diminishing the Experience of Anxiety and Depression

Both companion animals and animal-assisted interventions have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. In those with trauma, and among combat veterans, people in treatment for addiction, and the incarcerated, animals can significantly decrease reported severity of depression and anxiety. Having an animal dependent on one’s care and the affection they give can help one to experience empathy and help build feelings of connection, both of which are shown to alleviate anxiety and depression.

4. Providing Companionship

Any small-animal veterinarian will attest to the value of the human-animal bond. Studies conducted with older adults show indisputably that animals can provide important companionship, particularly for individuals who may not have the human interaction they desire. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people brought animals into their homes to provide companionship that was lost during extended quarantine periods.

5. Helping Us Be Mindful of the Moment

Animals exist in the present moment. They do not worry about the future or tell themselves stories to make meaning out of past events. They simply exist in the present. This current-moment existence can help us to be mindful of what is happening now. Our companion animals are delighted to be with us, to breathe, to sit beside us. We can use this aspect of their behavior as a model to remind ourselves to be as they are, content in connection with a friend.

More from Constance Scharff Ph.D.
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