Pets and mental wellbeing

Petting away stress

Pet therapy

Sree Mitra

April 25, 2024

Author: Shreya Rajaram

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”  ― Anatole France

For many of us, our pets are far more than just animals–they are beloved members of the family who brighten our days and keep us company through good times and bad. But the benefits of pet ownership go beyond just companionship. Numerous studies have shown that interacting with animals has a profound positive impact on our mental wellbeing.

A pet’s unconditional love, playful friendship, calming presence, and mood-boosting benefits can get us through some of life’s toughest moments. Findings from a survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association indicated that among the respondents who owned pets, an overwhelming 86% said their pets have a mostly positive effect on their mental health. This held true whether their companion was a dog (87%), cat (86%), or another type of pet like fish, birds or reptiles (62%).

Sure, we can rattle off the obvious reasons we love our pets–they’re adorable, hilarious, and one of the few sources of unconditional love in this world. But did you know they may also be contributing to our mental and physical health in ways we rarely consider?

  • Something as simple as stroking your dog or cat’s fur can rapidly calm anxiety by lowering blood pressure during stressful situations. 
  • Watching fish swim in an aquarium can actually help reduce muscle tension and lower your pulse rate. 

At the heart of these benefits is something pets have mastered that we humans constantly struggle with–the art of being present. Our pets live fully in the moment, never worrying about the past or stressing over the future. Simply sitting with a pet can be a powerful mindfulness lesson to bring our minds back to the here-and-now.

Caring for a pet also instills a valuable routine, whether it’s a daily feeding schedule, cleaning out litter boxes, or remembering to change the tank water for fish. Having this sense of structure and responsibility can provide a healthy distraction from our troubles and a grounding sense of purpose. For many people, pets also serve as an important social link. Dogs in particular can facilitate friendly interactions at the park or on neighborhood walks. This social connection can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

The mental health benefits extend to people of all ages and life situations. Children who grow up with pets often develop empathy, responsibility, and social skills. Older adults with pets tend to have lower blood pressure, requiring fewer medical visits. 

However, the responsibilities of pet ownership shouldn’t be taken lightly. Animals require time, money, and a long-term commitment. But for those who can make that pledge, the benefits of having a pet are immeasurable. 

So how can you gauge if you’re ready for a pet? Here are 4 key things to consider:

  • Be realistic about the recurring costs involved like food, vet care, supplies, grooming, boarding, etc. These can easily add up to hundreds or even thousands annually. 
  • Ensure you can provide enough exercise, attention, living space, and an environment suited to your pet’s needs and personality. Different pets have different requirements—do your research to choose the best fit.
  • Consider how a pet integrates with your current lifestyle. Pets bring routine, so make sure you can accommodate things like consistent feeding times, exercise, cleanup, etc. This commitment lasts the lifetime of the pet.
  • While never easy, make a plan for the inevitable loss when your pet passes away. Having a supportive network and allowing yourself to grieve can help navigate this transition compassionately when the time comes. 

If you’re looking to add more joy, affection, and wellness into your life, a pet may be the perfect partner. Just don’t be surprised when they beat you at a staring contest–they are naturals at being present.

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