The bonds between humans and animals are powerful. And the positive correlation between pets and mental health is undeniable. According to a 2015 Harris poll, 95 percent of pet owners think of their animal as a member of the family. And that’s true no matter how old we are. Children, adolescents, adults, and seniors all find joy in their pets. Therefore, pets and mental health go hand in hand.
Furthermore, research validates the benefits of pets for mental health. The mental health benefits of owning a dog or cat have been proven by many scientific studies. Animals help with depression, anxiety, and stress. In addition, they provide companionship and ease loneliness. Moreover, pets bring us joy and unconditional love.
Early Research on Pets and Mental Health
The first research on pets and mental health was published 30 years ago. Psychologist Alan Beck of Purdue University and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania conducted the study. Therefore, they measured what happens to the body when a person pets a friendly dog. Here’s what they found:
- Blood pressure went down
- Heart rate slowed
- Breathing became more regular
- Muscle tension relaxed.
These are all signs of reduced stress. Therefore, the researchers had discovered physical evidence of the mental health benefits of pets.
The Power of Animal-Assisted Therapy
Since then, scientists have discovered much more about the connection between pets and mental health. As a result, animal-assisted therapy programs have become an important part of mental health treatment. Moreover, individuals benefit from owning mental health animals, such as an emotional support dog.
Since the 1990s, teen mental health programs have incorporated equine therapy programs. Equine Assisted Therapy actively involves horses in mental health treatment. The human-horse connection allows teens to address emotions and issues. They do this through a powerful, direct experience of nonverbal communication.
However, we can experience pet therapy benefits every day in our own homes. Below are 10 ways in which pets support mental health.
Interacting with Pets Lowers Our Stress Hormones
Studies around pets and mental health show that petting and playing with animals reduces stress-related hormones. And these benefits can occur after just five minutes of interacting with a pet. Therefore, pets are very helpful for anxiety sufferers.
Playing with a dog or cat raises our levels of serotonin and dopamine. These are hormones that calm and relax the nervous system. When we smile and laugh at our pets’ cute behavior, that helps stimulate the release of these “happiness hormones.”
Pets and Mental Health: Lowering Stress
Moreover, interacting with a friendly dog reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. And it increases the release of oxytocin—another chemical in the body that reduces stress naturally. That’s why animal-assisted therapy is so powerful.
Furthermore, the sensory act of stroking a pet lowers blood pressure. Therefore, it reduces stress. Consequently, studies have shown that dogs can help calm hyperactive or aggressive children.
In one study, a group of stressed-out adults was told to pet a rabbit, a turtle, or a toy. Touching the toy didn’t have any effects. However, stroking the rabbit or turtle relieved anxiety. In addition, even people who didn’t particularly like animals experienced the benefits.
Pets Protect Against Childhood Anxiety
A pet dog may protect children from anxiety, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A total of 643 children participated in the study. A little over half of them had pet dogs in the home. Researchers measured the children’s BMI (body mass index), anxiety levels, screen time, and physical activity.
As a result, they found that all the children had similar BMIs, screen time, and physical activity. This held true whether or not they had pet dogs. But their anxiety levels were different. In fact, 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.
Therefore, pets clearly have a beneficial effect on childhood stress and anxiety. As a result, children who grow up with pets may have a better chance of becoming happy and healthy teens.