Dog-and-mental-health

Why pets improve our wellbeing and mental health

by Angela Hickey | 3 min read

January 7th, 2022

Pets bring great benefits to our lives, improving our wellbeing and mental health. This may be especially so during the ‘January blues’ where people get that lull after the festive period and the weather is still dark and cold out. Our dogs will demand a walk with a wagging tail and their enthusiasm to get out no matter what the weather is like is infectious. So, off you go and come back feeling the better of it! Your cat will rub against you and purr affectionately and your mood will lift as a result.

Whereas we are warned against getting a pet at Christmas time, January might be just the right time to consider it.  We are back in our normal routines and may have more time to devote to settling in and training a new pet. However it is vital to consider all aspects of a new pet’s needs and be sure you can provide for them on a long-term basis. During previous lock-downs due to COVID virus many people stuck at home adopted new pets, but, unfortunately, as restrictions eased many were given back to pet charities due to problems with lack of training, people going back to work, etc. So please make sure you are willing and able to commit to owning a pet before buying or adopting one.

Companionship

Pets are valued as family members and companions and many studies confirm an enhanced quality of life due to interactions between people and animals.

This companionship is a huge benefit, especially for those living alone.   

Research has demonstrated that after a brief interaction between a dog and its owner neurochemicals which are associated with positive, ‘feel good’ emotions are increased in both the person and the dog. For example, a 2020 study from England’s University of York, asked 5,926 people in the U.K. about their mental health, well-being, and loneliness, as well as their bonds and interactions with their pets. The study found that, 91 percent of dog owners, 89 percent of cat owners, and 95 percent of horse and farm animal owners—said that their pets “constituted an important source of emotional support,”.

People living alone find that their social contacts increase when they walk their dogs and meet other pet parents who stop for a ‘socially –distanced’ chat. Vets and vet nurses in local Veterinary practices also become supports and friends in caring for our pets. 

The unconditional nature of a pet’s attachment to us is gratifying and creates a ‘feel good factor’. Their affection is always there, no matter what our mood is. There is no judgement. We can be fully ourselves!

The physicality of a pet (climbing on our laps, purring, rubbing against us, barking, playfulness, displays of affection etc.) is a great antidote to the virtual, ‘on screen’ world we humans inhabit for large parts of our days! As we engage with our pets we become more present, aware and grounded. 

Health & Wellbeing

A pet dog needs daily exercise and this encourages us to get out into local parks, mountains and beaches to satisfy those needs, which ensures that we also get regular exercise and contact with the beauty of Nature, both of which are very beneficial to our mental health.

Petting and stroking a pet has been proven to lower blood pressure and relieve stress. The stress hormone, Cortisol, is reduced, leading to many health benefits, including stronger immune systems.  Stress reduction lets us relax into the present moment, easing out of tension and anxiety.

The routines we create to meet our pet’s needs such as feeding, play, walks etc. helps to regulate us as well, especially when we are locked down at home and out of our own normal routines.

We also have the responsibility of looking after our pet’s needs and keeping them healthy. Children can be involved and learn a lot about caring for others. This nurturing of another dependant creature helps empathy to develop.

Our dog’s joy at playing ball encourages us to become more playful ourselves. Our cat’s contentment as they settle on a cushion, purring, by the fire, is contagious. Due to ‘mirror neurones’ in the brain we feel what they are feeling and become contented as a result. 

Pets & Vulnerable People

In normal times, pets are brought into hospitals, hospices, nursing homes and other care settings and bring benefits to residents there, as they are affectionate to all and have a very calming effect on those who interact with them.

Assistance dogs have a great impact on the mental wellbeing of children with Autism and other disabilities in helping to calm and regulate their emotions.

The death of a pet can also bring emotional learning into their family’s life. Children who had close bonds with a pet can experience deep grief at this time. When this is acknowledged and supported it can be a big teaching moment for them which will stand to them, as a resource, when future losses occur in their lives. Adults also need support and understanding at the loss of a pet because “with great love comes great grief.”

Throughout the circle of life, from tiny puppy or kitten, to elderly pet, we benefit so much for our mental health, well–being, and growth as human beings, from our bond with our pets.

About the author

bio image for Angela Hickey
Angela Hickey

Allianz in-house vet and qualified psychotherapist.