Animals & Your Mental Health
Shockingly, 1 in 5 of us will be affected by mental health disorders in our lives. Around 450 million people currently suffer, which makes mental health issues one of the leading causes of ill-health worldwide.  There are many forms mental health disorders can take; from depression and anxiety to eating disorders and chronic stress, and each individual sufferer will have their own unique way of managing and treating the illness.
One thing that is universal, though, is the undoubted effect that owning a pet can have on your mental health.
If you’ve ever been a pet parent, you already know the incredible benefits that animals bring to our lives. Affection, responsibility, love and companionship – but did you know, that owning a pet also comes with some pretty powerful mental and physical health benefits, too!?
Studies have shown that dogs and cats, in particular, can lower stress levels, relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, ease loneliness and encourage exercise in their owners. Caring for a pet can also give people a purpose in their life when they may feel there is none. A reason to get up in the morning. But most importantly, provide joy and unconditional love.
Other mental and physical benefits of being a pet parent:
- Pet owners have lower blood pressure.
- Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin (the happiness hormone) and dopamine (which calms and relaxes you).
- Pet owners have lower cholesterol levels.
- Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without pets.
- Pet owners over 65 make 30% fewer visits to the doctors than those without pets.
The Science of The Owner-Pet Bond
Many pet owners will be familiar with the immediate joy that comes from owning a dog or cat, but remain unaware of the true long-term benefits they are bringing with the addition of their furry-friend! It’s only recently that scientists and behavior experts have studied the human-animal bond, and the results are quite astounding.
Dogs and cats have evolved to become attuned to our emotions – and can even understand many of the words we use, our tone of voice, our body language, and our gestures. A loyal dog can even look into our eyes to gauge our emotional state to try and understand what we’re feeling and thinking (and then work out how to respond).
As humans, we have an ingrained need for touch . So stroking, hugging, holding and petting an animal can fulfill this need, and rapidly calms and soothes our mind and body when we are feeling anxious or stressed.
How Pets Can Boost Your Mood
Here are the main ways in which owning and caring for a pet can improve your mood, and alleviate symptoms of mental health disorders:
1. Increasing Exercise
By taking a dog for a walk every day, many pet owners unknowingly increase the amount of physical activity they do. Exercise is proven to be a hugely effective tool in combatting depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. When we exercise, our brains release endorphins and serotonin, making us feel happier, healthier and more rational. Some studies have even shown regular exercise to be as effective as anti-depressants when it comes to our mental wellbeing.
2. Providing Companionship
Having a pet around the house can add years to your life! How? Well, by relieving loneliness, caring for an animal can actually make you feel needed, and give you a purpose each day. Loneliness can trigger depression, so the companionship of a loyal dog or cat can make even the hardest of days, a lot more bearable.
3. Reducing Anxiety
The affection of an animal can offer comfort, reduce the feeling of anxiety, and build self-esteem. Pets live in the moment, they don’t think about what happened yesterday, or worry about what may happen tomorrow – they help us become more mindful and appreciate the present. Plus, they’re always happy to see us and give us a warm, affectionate hug!
4. Adding Structure to Your Day
Most pets require a regular feeding and exercise pattern in order to live happy, healthy lives. This encourages you to stick to a routine, maintaining a sense of balance in your life. No matter your mood, your pet still needs you, and this sense of responsibility can keep many of us going, even on harder days.
5. Helping You Meet New People
Pets can be an excellent conversation starter for their owners, especially when out walking dogs! Meeting new people and like-minded pet owners can be a great way to build relationships and start new friendships. In pet stores, on walks and hikes, even in the park – use your cute pal to encourage conversations with new people.
6. Aiding Weight Loss
Research has found that walking a dog for 20 minutes a day, can help you lose 14lbs each year, without making any other changes! Encouraging exercise and play-time with your dog not only helps them stay fit and healthy, but it helps you, too! It also encourages the bond between you and your pet, building trust and practicing skills like stay, heal and fetch.
Pets can be wonderful additions to your family and bring many health and mood-boosting benefits. However, they require a lot of love, care, and attention, and they are for life, not just for the time being. If you don’t have the time or space to house a permanent pet, you can still experience the soothing benefits of pet care by just being around animals. Even short periods of time can benefit you!
Sign up to an animal shelter and help care for the pets there, or even volunteer to walk a neighbor’s dog – you’ll be surprised at the positive effect it can have!
For those of you with pets – you already know the incredible benefits! Take the time to be mindful about how your furry-friend is helping your mental wellbeing, and give them an extra cuddle and treat because of it!