Mental health affects us all. From depression creeping in to, the heart-stopping energy of anxiety, keeping on top of our mental well-being can be a daily struggle. In the quest for good mental health, pets are an incredible gift that can bring joy and companionship to our lives.
One the one hand, pets can help with enforcing healthy routines and habits, giving us some much needed structure in our lives. And on the other, these little bundles of joy can inject spontaneity into our days. Here are 6 ways that pets can improve your mental health.
Building Healthy Habits
Being responsible for another living, breathing creature enforces structure on our lives like nothing else. Whether it’s walking your dog twice a day or simply cleaning out the rabbit hutch on a regular basis, bringing a pet into your home introduces regular healthy habits.
There are a variety of very successful programs where prison inmates learn about responsibility through caring for and training a dog or cat. For families with children, having a pet can provide ample opportunities for becoming responsible and enabling them to experience the joy of a human/animal bond. The folks at PetMD have assembled a terrific resource for ways to fold pet care into your daily life with kids.
When we’re having a rough time with our mental health, even achieving small daily goals can give us a much needed serotonin boost. Caring for your pet becomes a valuable routine in tough times.
Working On Our Social Skills
While you might think that caring for a pet has little real impact on our social skills, research has shown that people who live with pets in their homes build relationships with other humans more freely. “Pet ownership appears to be a significant factor for facilitating social interaction and friendship formation within neighborhoods,” write Dr. Lisa Wood, associate professor at the University of Western Australia, and her colleagues in the PLoS One report titled The Pet Factor. “For pet owners, this also translates into new sources of social support, both of a practical and emotionally supportive nature.”
The folks at Good News Network surveyed 2,000 dog owners about various aspects of pet ownership. They found that 54% of survey respondents felt more confident about talking to other people because of their pets. And nearly half made friends while walking their dog through the neighborhood,
For people with issues related to socialization, pets bridge the gap beautifully. In an article by HABRI, Dr. Joanna Becker, PhD, Sam and Myra Ross Institute notes that in children with autism, “Not only do dogs appear to have a positive effect on children’s emotional states, but they can also be motivating factors that encourage social interaction and involvement."
Supporting Mental Illness Recovery
A 2016 study conducted at the University of Manchester drew profound results in mental health recovery when participants cared for a pet. As well as reporting healthier routines and stronger social connections, the participants, who were recovering from severe mental health issues such as depression and schizophrenia, reported that their pets made them feel needed and valued, which enabled, and sometimes even forced them to pursue recovery.
The report outlines the ‘gulf in understanding’ between those suffering from mental health issues and the people in their group of family and friends. There is a stigma that the person suffering must share their mental health condition in order to have a beneficial relationship with friends and family. This causes issues due to a potential lack of understanding of mental health issues on the part of the friends and family.
On the other hand, pets appear to inherently understanding of their owners’ mental health issues and do not require an explanation, opening the door for a bonding relationship without the pre-requisite level of understanding that rests with family and friends. In other words, pets just get us and are happy to be with us in whatever state we are in.
Pet’s have been shown to reduce anxiety in children and adults. One of the most powerful ways that pets can help to reduce your anxiety is by introducing a tactile connection to the world - the soft fur of a cat or the weight of a dog in your lap helps to ground us to the earth and helps us find distance from the existential weight of anxiety. According to the National Institutes for Health, "humans interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure". They have also that animals been shown to reduce loneliness, boost your mood and increase feelings of being socially supported.
A Spark Of Joy
There’s much that we can learn from our pets. Even on our darkest days, pets can introduce a sense of joy and even silliness that penetrates our negativity and puts a smile on our face. Cats and dogs are prone to unpredictable explosions of joy, often causing us to laugh out loud. The release of endorphins in your brain can naturally boost your mood, setting you on a path to better mental health.
Living In The Moment
When we’re gripped by poor mental health, it can be exceptionally difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Pets, however, are living in the moment. Your pets aren’t worrying about what happened yesterday, or what the world will look like tomorrow - living with pets can help you focus on the here and now, letting go of worries and anxieties. What’s more, when you’re with your pet your attention is focused on then, further pushing out those negative feelings.
From rabbits to great shaggy dogs, there’s a pet for every lifestyle and to fit in every home. Dogs are the most common pet to help you master your mental health, but if you’re not ready for such a commitment then even intelligent and curious pet rats can bring you joy and companionship on a daily basis. Whether you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, with a pet you know you’re never alone.
Lauren Groff is a writer and researcher at Boom Essays. Lauren is interested in non-traditional ways of pursuing better health and wellbeing through open practices that are accessible to all.