Pawsitively Happy

By Heather Shoning

PETS CAN BOOST your mood and mental health

Photo By rmolaev Alexander

There’s a reason #petmemed has 948,000 followers, and the Facebook account Animal Memes has 1.6 million. People get joy from pets. In addition to populating our screens, the American Pet Products Association statistics show that 66 percent of U.S. households (86.9 million homes) have a pet. They can have a significant impact on our mental—and physical—health, as well as giving us relief from seasonal blues.

A 2018 study by BMC Psychiatry qualitatively and quantitatively analyzed the effects of pet ownership on people living with mental health conditions. Participants who reported losing their sense of purpose following a mental health diagnosis felt significantly more in control of the direction of their lives after bringing home a pet. Some even went so far as to say that their pet gave them a reason to live. 

Left: Photo By vitalli matokh | Right: Photo By Veera

Interacting with pets, such as petting a cat or playing with a dog, can trigger the release of oxytocin, a hormone that helps reduce stress and anxiety. This can lead to lower blood pressure and heart rate, promoting relaxation. Pets offer unconditional love and companionship and can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation. Having a pet to interact with can reduce feelings of withdrawal and depression. In addition, walking a dog or taking a pet to a park can lead to social interactions with other pet owners, fostering a sense of community and reducing feelings of social isolation.

Focusing on the needs of a pet can serve as a distraction from negative thoughts and worries, helping to break the cycle of rumination common in many mental health disorders. Caring for a pet requires establishing a routine for feeding, grooming and exercise. This can provide a sense of purpose and structure to one’s day, which can be especially beneficial for individuals struggling with depression or other mood disorders. Pets are good listeners. Talking to or confiding in a pet can provide an outlet for emotional expression, which can be especially helpful when an individual is hesitant to share their feelings with others. Some people find comfort in having a pet, as it can create a sense of security and reduce feelings of fear or anxiety from being home alone or living alone.

Photo By Eva Blanco

Pets can also positively impact mental and physical health simultaneously through physical activity. A 2023 British Journal of Sports Medicine 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 than traditional treatment methods. Dogs, in particular, require regular exercise, encouraging owners to engage in physical activity. Before getting a pet for physical health, it’s essential to consider that while most dogs need regular walks to be healthy, there are differences in how much exercise different breeds can tolerate.

While pets can provide significant mental health benefits, they also come with responsibilities and may not be suitable for everyone. Considering factors like lifestyle, living situation and allergies is crucial before getting a pet. Additionally, individuals with severe mental health issues should consult with a health care professional to determine the best treatment plan, which may include traditional therapies and/or medication in addition to the companionship of a pet.

If you experience a mental health emergency, please contact Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners’ 24-hour hotline at 844.493.8255 or dial 988 for the national suicide and crisis lifeline.

Photo By Eva Blanco