pets and mental health

How pets influence our mental health

When you think about the greatest teachers in your life, a wise loved one or inspiring coach might come to mind. 

But what about your pets?

We can learn valuable life lessons from all kinds of animals, from the resilience of a tiny bug on the sidewalk to the loyalty of a dog in your home. So keep reading as we explore the benefits of the human-animal bond and how pets can teach all kinds of things—namely, how they can support our own physical and mental health.

Understanding the bond between humans and pets

The bond between humans and pets is a special one that has been around for centuries. In fact, the relationship between humans and animals dates back to prehistoric times when early humans domesticated wolves to protect their campsites and hunt for food. Over time, people began to keep other animals as pets, too, such as cats, birds, and horses, among others. 

Today, pets are an integral part of human society and can be found in homes and farms all over the world. And it’s likely because pets offer so much more than just companionship. 

Specifically, pets provide emotional support and can improve your mental health. Studies have shown that spending time with dogs reduces stress levels and helps alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Additionally, pets can help you maintain healthy habits by encouraging you to exercise, socialize, and stick to a routine.

The science behind pets and mental health

You might be wondering: Is there really a connection between pets and mental health? 

The short answer is yes—there have been many scientific studies that have linked pets to mental health. These studies have found that interacting with pets can have a significant positive impact on your mental well-being. The benefits of pet ownership extend well beyond companionship, as pets also provide emotional support and help you manage stress, anxiety, and depression.

Plus, interacting with pets can induce hormonal changes in our bodies that contribute to improved mental health. For example, spending time with animals has been shown to increase oxytocin levels, a hormone associated with social bonding, trust, and relaxation. Simultaneously, interactions with pets can also reduce cortisol levels, a hormone related to stress.

And by inducing these hormonal changes, pets can help lower stress levels and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Just the presence of a pet can provide a sense of calmness and comfort if you’re dealing with mental health challenges or simply seeking relief from everyday stressors. As we’ve mentioned before, too, pets can also encourage exercise and socialization, which further contribute to overall well-being.

Pets and children: A special relationship

Pets not only play a significant role in your well-being but also in children's emotional, social, and cognitive growth. 

Children facing emotional challenges can benefit greatly from the companionship of a pet. Pets offer unconditional love and support and a sense of comfort and security, which can help children develop resilience and cope with difficult emotions. Interacting with pets can also serve as a healthy outlet for expressing feelings and reducing stress.

What’s more, therapy animals have been found to be highly effective in helping children with autism spectrum disorder improve their social skills and reduce anxiety. Similarly, pets have been shown to add structure to children’s lives and help them cope with traumatic experiences or adjustments to significant life changes.

Mental health benefits of owning different types of pets

Did you know? Different types of pets can have different impacts on our mental health.

Dogs are known for their unconditional love and constant companionship. They are often referred to by dog owners and others as "man's best friend" because of their loyalty and devotion. Dogs can have a positive impact on your mental health by providing emotional support and encouraging physical activity. For example, going for walks or runs with your dog can reduce stress levels, help you stay active, and release endorphins.

Plus, one study found that just looking at pictures of dogs has been found to increase your productivity and job performance. So to put this research into action, check out this one-hour video of cute puppies:  

Cats can have a unique calming influence on your life, and their presence can help reduce stress and anxiety. Their soothing purrs and gentle demeanor can also provide comfort during difficult times. Cats are also low-maintenance pets, making them an ideal choice if you have a busy lifestyle but still seek the benefits of pet companionship.

Other pets, such as birds, fish, and small mammals, can also positively impact your mental health in various ways. For example, watching fish swim in an aquarium has been shown to lower blood pressure and induce a sense of relaxation. Birds, with their songs and playful nature, can bring joy and ease loneliness. And small mammals like rabbits, guinea pigs, or hamsters can provide companionship without requiring as much space and attention as cats or dogs. These smaller pets can be particularly beneficial if you’re living in an apartment or with limited space.

Again, no matter the type of pet you own, it’s bound to significantly enhance your overall well-being.

Emotional support animals and therapy pets

Whether you’re a dog owner, a cat owner, or the owner of a few different types of animals, you know firsthand that all pets are special. But there are some pets that are uniquely trained and distinguished from the rest: emotional support animals and therapy pets are two types of pets that help people with mental health conditions. 

Emotional support animals (ESAs) are pets that provide comfort, companionship, and emotional support to individuals who suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. These animals are not necessarily trained to perform specific tasks like service animals; instead, their primary role is to offer emotional stability and reduce stress through their presence.

On the other hand, therapy pets—or paw—are animals that have been trained to assist in clinical settings by providing a calming and supportive influence for patients dealing with mental health issues. These companion animals are typically used in conjunction with traditional therapy methods, such as counseling or psychotherapy. They may visit hospitals, nursing homes, schools, or other therapeutic environments to offer comfort and emotional support to patients.

There are numerous real-world examples of emotional support and therapy pets making a profound impact on people's lives. For instance:

  • A veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may rely on an emotional support dog for companionship and a sense of security.
  • Children with autism spectrum disorder often benefit from interacting with therapy dogs, which can help them improve their social skills and reduce anxiety levels.
  • In hospitals, therapy dogs may visit patients to provide comfort and help alleviate feelings of loneliness during their stay.

Good boys and girls, indeed. 

How pets can help you learn coping skills for mental health

If you’re considering getting a pet, it’s important to choose the right pet for your needs. Here are a few factors to consider: 

  • Lifestyle: Think about your daily routine, living situation, and available time. Dogs require regular exercise and outdoor activities, making them suitable if you have an active lifestyle. Cats, on the other hand, are more low-maintenance and may be better suited for you if you have a busy schedule. 
  • Allergies: Ensure that you don’t have any allergies to specific animals before bringing a pet into your home.
  • Temperament: Research different breeds of animals to find one that matches your personality and preferences. Some breeds are more energetic and social, while others are more calm and independent.

Then, once you’re a pet owner, it’s important to remember that mutual care is vital in any pet-human relationship. In other words, both you and your pet should benefit from the bond you share. So here are some tips to help you establish a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship with your pet: 

  • Communicate: Learn how to understand your pet's body language and vocal cues to better communicate with them.
  • Provide positive reinforcement: Use praise, treats, and affection to reward your pet for good behavior.
  • Socialize: Expose your pet to new people, animals, and environments to help them become well-adjusted and confident.
  • Provide proper care: Regular veterinary visits, proper nutrition, grooming, and exercise are essential for maintaining your pet's physical health.
  • Create a safe environment: Make sure your home is a safe space for your pet, free from hazards, and with designated areas for them to rest, play, and eat.
  • Be consistent: Establish routines and boundaries to help your pet feel secure and understand what is expected of them.

The benefits of learning coping skills from mental health through pets

As you can see, pet ownership can significantly improve your mental health and overall quality of life. Some of the key benefits of having a pet include the following:

  • Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Unconditional love and companionship
  • Encouragement for exercise and outdoor activities
  • Improved socialization and communication skills

Plus, they’re undeniably adorable. 

If you’re also interested in other ways to support your mental health, download the Balance app on iOS or Android. Balance offers a variety of guided meditations and research-backed activities that can help enhance your overall mental wellness. With personalized recommendations based on your goals and preferences, the app makes it easy to prioritize your mental health in a way that feels authentic and sustainable—like quick 5-minute Walking meditations you can do while out with your furry friend, for example. 

Oh, Balance is also completely free for your entire first year. 

That means more cash in your pocket for toys and treats. 

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