How pets can support emotional health

It is widely known that having a pet can bring with it many benefits. Owners of cats, dogs, or in fact, any animal can gain some advantages by having a 4 legged companion. Most pet owners feel more positive and enjoy the time that they share or spend caring for their pets. But there are other physical, mental and emotional improvements that come along with pet ownership.

Along with the human-animal bond that can bring feelings of pleasure and compassion, pets have adapted over the years to become more in touch with human emotions and even health issues. 

Dogs for example have been used for many years as ‘seeing eye’ dogs to assist those with impaired vision, but more recently have been used as emotional support animals or to help predict things like the onset of seizures of epileptic fits. 

Did you know that dogs use eye contact to assess your emotional state or intention behind your words?

Like humans engaging in a person to person interaction, dogs will use non-verbal clues like facial expression and tone of voice to determine the meaning behind words and commands. Pretty smart!

It’s not just cats and dogs that can provide health benefits either. While canine and feline companions are popular, they are not the only animals that can provide improved wellbeing. Pets of all types can support relaxation, help reduce stress and lower tension. 

Even watching fish in a tank or spending time with a fluffy rabbit has been shown to promote calmness and lower pulse rates.

What are the health benefits of pet ownership?

There are a good number of health improvements that have been identified from research and studies relating to the human-animal connection. Here are some other things that you may not know about the impact of owning a pet on your emotional wellbeing.

  • It has been well documented by scientists and researchers that people who own pets tend to have lower blood pressure levels. Having a non-human companion can lower stress and blood pressure levels significantly and simply stroking the animal can make owners feel calmer and more relaxed.
  • While blood pressure can be lowered other essential hormones like serotonin and dopamine can be elevated by playing with a pet. Serotonin is the hormone that makes us feel happy and stabilizes mood, it is often replaced synthetically with anti-depression medication. Dopamine is a hormone and neuro-transmitter that provides us with the feel-good factor and insufficient dopamine levels can create all kinds of problems from low energy to mood swings. 
  • Older people aged 65 and above spend less time visiting their local doctors than people without pets. In fact, studies show that doctors’ visits are around 30% lower.
  • For those people who have experienced struggles with low mood or depression, having a pet may be the answer and can help combat symptoms. Those who own an animal companion are less likely to suffer from problems with depression and anxiety.
  • Having a pet has a positive impact on heart health. Having a pet can help to lower cholesterol and triglyceride readings which can be indicators of heart problems. For those who have suffered a heart attack, studies show that survival rates are better among pet owners.

Pets can support a healthier lifestyle

Belle, my Yorkshire terrier.

While simply owning a pet can bring about emotional improvements, there are also physical benefits associated with having an animal in your home. Physical and emotional health are closely connected so caring for and walking a pet can help with things like PTSD, certain disorders, and help you generally maintain a healthier lifestyle.

Dogs require regular and frequent exercise and having a routine can create balance and structure in your day. Having a routine is often helpful for those with anxiety and even on days where motivation is lacking, a pathetic whine or a beseeching look from Fido can be enough to force you into action. 

Having a pet has been closely linked to weight loss. Walking a dog is like having your very own exercise buddy, and is a low-impact and easy way to incorporate physical exercise into your day. Maintaining a consistent walking schedule can help pet owners to shed pounds easily and research has shown that those that own a dog walk more on average than before having their pet. 

The companionship of a faithful animal can prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation, having another living, breathing entity to care for can make you feel needed and important, reducing the risk of depression and providing a coping mechanism for problems. Coming home to an excited dog with a wagging tail is a great cure for the blues.

Pets can often be used as a kind of ‘sounding board’ to air problems and concerns. A large number of animal owners talk to their pets which can help to organise thoughts or explore solutions to challenges. 

Social interactions may also be improved by having a pet, helping to create new relationships, form friendships or simply generate a few pleasant chats. As dogs need to be walked, owners are frequently outdoors and placed in situations where they will encounter other humans. 

People will often stop to enquire what kind of dog you have, how old it is, what breed it is, or simply to pet and fuss over your pooch. If you happen to have a puppy this can be especially irresistible and you may find that you are suddenly meeting a number of new and interesting people, which is great for confidence building.

When you are relaxing on the couch with your pet, the sensory effect of stroking your pet provides fast stress relief. The repetitive action along with the touch and sensation of soft fur can quickly lower stress and anxiety, and reduce blood pressure. This can help people with emotional health issues to quickly balance their emotions and regain equilibrium.

Who can benefit from owning a pet?

Enjoying all the inherent benefits of pet ownership is not limited by age, education level, or physical ability. People both young and old can enjoy the love and companionship of a pet. Children can feel important when caring for a pet and owning an animal can help to develop positive self-esteem. Pets can also help to calm children that are anxious or hyperactive and assist with developing skills like empathy and understanding. 

Older people may enjoy owning a pet for the companionship it provides which may help reduce feelings of isolation or loneliness. It may also help to expand the social network and a boost to wellbeing can be realised from increased exercise, and the immune system can be improved by the care and laughter a loving or goofy pet can provide. 

While owning a pet is undoubtedly a commitment, the number of advantages, positive improvements, and gains in physical and emotional health means that for some people, pet ownership is a must. If your living situation doesn’t allow for a cat or a dog, you could always opt for a smaller animal or set up an aquarium. Those that have owned a pet for a number of years simply cannot imagine not having an animal as a companion and are usually staunch advocates of pet ownership.

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About the Author

Jon is a highly experienced wellbeing specialist, trainer and clinician who helps busy, overwhelmed people to boost joy, bounce-back-ability and performance in and outside of work.