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Animal Behavior

The Psychological and Physical Benefits of Having a Pet

Pets can improve our health and well-being.

Source: Skeeze/Pixabay

Pets are an essential part of our psychological toolkit and a great source of comfort. The experience of spending time with an animal is beneficial in the context of your overall health and well-being.

Petting, holding, or cuddling an animal increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine in our bodies, which are feel-good, calming brain chemicals. As a result of these positive chemical changes, our feelings of depression and loneliness may be reduced while our self-esteem and happiness may increase. Interacting with pets can serve to reduce your blood pressure, slow your heart rate, and decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. High levels of cortisol can cause the buildup of plaque in the arteries of your heart; this can lead to a heart attack. Even just watching fish swimming around in an aquarium can be a calming and relaxing experience.

Studies have shown that owning a pet may reduce the symptoms of depression, provide a sense of purpose, increase self-confidence, and provide comfort to their owners. Seniors who are depressed or lonely benefit greatly from having a pet to care for and love; it makes them feel needed, which promotes self-confidence and self-esteem. Pets also provide structure and routine to daily life because they require regular care and feeding. Our pets are a welcome sight when we return home following a long or stressful day. Dogs, especially, are palpably happy to see you when you’ve been away.

Dog ownership is immensely therapeutic. A dog requires daily walks; this means that their owners, too, experience fresh air and exercise on a daily basis, thus lowering their risk of succumbing to heart disease. Dog walking also decreases the extent to which humans can isolate themselves. While out and about, walking our dogs, we encounter numerous opportunities to strike up conversations with people whom we might otherwise have never met. People often pass each other on the street without saying a word — but having a dog present is a natural conversation-starter.

Some dogs can sense when you, their owner — their family — are sad or unhappy. They will often respond by nudging you with their paw or head — or they’ll simply sit by your side to let you know that they’re there. Children often prefer to confide their feelings to a pet rather than an adult. Law students who are anxious and stressed before exams have benefited significantly from visits to their schools by therapy dogs.

Many law schools are now allowing therapy dogs onto their campuses to alleviate the pressure of exams among their students. Certified therapy dogs are brought in by their owners, and the students are allowed to pet the dogs and sit with them. The experience of doing so offers students a welcome diversion from their studies and eases their levels of stress, anxiety, and tension. Therapy dogs have, likewise, become part of children’s library reading programs and also provide comfort to people who are in or who work in nursing homes, hospitals, and funeral homes.

Any animal can be a source of social support. Just having another living being whom you can talk to, hug, love — and who needs you — can alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. Dogs and cats are great sources of comfort and companionship. However, if you are allergic to dogs or cats — or if you don’t want or are not in a position to be able to fulfill the commitment of owning one — then an aquarium is an excellent choice. Aquariums are inexpensive and are relatively low-maintenance. The sound of the filter can also be relaxing, as well as the experience of watching the fish while they swim.

More from Louise B. Miller Ph.D.
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