Pet ownership is undoubtedly one of the greatest pleasures in life, providing love, companionship and giggles galore. Being greeted at the door by an overexcited four-legged friend after a long, stressful day at work can’t fail to put a smile on your face. And snuggling up on the couch with a purring cat on your lap can bring on a wonderful sense of calm and serenity.
October is Pet Wellness Month and as a company dedicated to animal health, your pet’s health and wellbeing is always our top priority. But we also know the many, many benefits that having animals in our lives has upon our own health and wellness. October 10th is Mental Health Awareness Day – a day dedicated to raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health. And with mental health problems on the rise, particularly among adolescents and young adults, pet ownership could be just what the doctor ordered.
Mental Health by Numbers
Millions of people in the U.S. are affected by mental illness each year. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year
1 in 25 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year
1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34*
And statistics for the UK are just as stark.
Mental health plays a major role in your ability to maintain good physical health. Reversed, mental health concerns affect your ability to participate in healthy behaviours and to remain physically well, so mental health challenges can lead to a downward spiral in your physical health. And yet, it’s all too easy to take mental health for granted in ourselves and in others.
The Pet Effect
The ‘Pet Effect’ is the mutually beneficial relationship between people and animals that positively impacts the health and well-being of both. Some of the health benefits of owning a pet include:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Lowered cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- Reduced feelings of loneliness
- Increased exercise and outdoor activities
- Expanded opportunities for socialization
Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness and encourage exercise and playfulness. Caring for an animal can also help children grow up more secure and active, whilst also providing valuable companionship for older adults.
While having a pet cannot cure mental illness, studies suggest that it could certainly help. Research reported by Medical News Today found that 60 percent of pet owners who had been diagnosed with severe mental illness said that their pet was “most important” for managing their condition.
So just how can having a pet help your mental health?
Interacting With Animals Helps To Lower Stress Levels
Studies show that petting and playing with animals reduces stress-related hormones. And these benefits can occur after just five minutes of the interaction. Therefore, pets are very helpful for anxiety sufferers.
Playing with a dog or cat and smiling and laughing at our pets’ cute antics raises our levels of serotonin and dopamine – the ‘happiness hormones’ that calm and relax the nervous system. Furthermore, the sensory act of stroking a pet has been shown to lower blood pressure and thereby reduce stress.
Pets Help Protect Against Childhood Anxiety
According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having a pet dog may protect children from anxiety. The study found that 21 percent of the children who did not have a pet dog tested positive on a screening test for anxiety. However, only 12 percent of children with dogs tested positive for anxiety. Studies have also shown that dogs can help calm hyperactive or aggressive children.
Pets clearly have a beneficial effect on childhood stress and anxiety and children who grow up with pets may have a better chance of becoming happy and healthy teens.
Our Pets Make Us Feel Needed
Caring for a pet gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. Having a cat curl herself around your legs as she politely suggests that it’s dinner time, or a dog eagerly bounding towards you, lead in mouth, to indicate that it’s time for walkies makes us feel needed and wanted. And these acts of caring for another living thing have mental health benefits.
Even caring for creatures that don’t interact much with us can impart positive mental health benefits, as shown by 2016 study where elderly people were given five crickets in a cage to care for and their mood was monitored over eight weeks. When compared to a control group that was not caring for any pet, the participants that had to take care of the crickets became less depressed after eight weeks than those in the control group. Although crickets may not be top of your list of ‘pets I’d love to care for’, they’re pretty low maintenance, so have their advantages!
Pets Increase Our Sense of Self-Esteem and Well-Being
Studies have shown that pet owners have improved well-being in several areas, including:
- Greater self-esteem
- More physically fit
- Feel less lonely
- More conscientious and less preoccupied
- More extroverted
- Less fearful.
Cats and Dogs Are Great Examples of Being in the Moment
Pets live in the moment. They don’t worry about what happened yesterday and they aren’t worried about what might happen tomorrow. Pets can help us become more mindful and to bring our attention to the present moment, instead of worrying about the future or getting hung up about the past.
Pets Help Us Build Healthy Habits
Pets need to be taken care of every day and this helps to build healthy habits and routines, including:
Physical activity: In our view, it’s far more fun to go for a walk or a run with a bounding ball of fur matching your stride! And it seems we’re not alone in that view as studies show that dog owners are far more likely to meet recommended daily exercise requirements.
Time in nature: Walking a dog or riding a horse gets us outside, allowing us to experience the many mental health benefits of being in the great outdoors.
Getting up in the morning: Dogs and cats need to be fed on a regular schedule and let outside for their morning constitutional. What better reason is there to get up and start your day?
Pet care supports self-care: Caring for a dog, horse, or cat reminds us to care for ourselves as well. If we are not well, we can’t take care of our loved ones as well as we should.
Pets Support Social Connection
Pets support social connection and help to relieve social anxiety. Simply walking a dog often leads to conversations with other dog owners and as a result, dog owners tend to be more socially connected and less isolated.
Pets provide a common topic to talk about and help to counteract social isolation. Afterall, who doesn’t love to talk about their pets and if you’re anything like us, you love to hear other people’s pet stories too!
Last But Not Least … Pets Give Us Unconditional Love
Well, more so if you have a dog than a cat… we all know cats tend to do things on their own terms. But under it all, both dogs and cats love their owners unconditionally. Pets don’t care how much money you make, which car you drive, or how you performed in a recent exam. They don’t judge us on our social skills, how we look or our athletic ability. They are simply happy to spend time with us, a kind of unconditional love that is so good for our mental health.
So the next time you’re feeling stressed, depressed and things are getting a little bit too much, reach for Professor Pet and let them work their magic. The next big question will be, which pet is right for you?