How Pets Support Their Owners’ Mental Health
They’re in airports, and on trains; on patios, and lazing on windowsills; even dutifully strolling the aisles of hardware stores with their owners. If you feel like you’re seeing more dogs and cats in the world lately, you’re probably right. Pet ownership is on the rise. Animals are, of course, cute (evidence for this claim can be found here and here). They also can have powerfully positive effects on their owners’ mental health, some of which might surprise you.
Pets can improve your mood
Depression affects about 17 million adults in the U.S. The good news: treatment works. and while medications, talk therapy and exercise can all have their place in your healing journey, your furry friend can also lend a helping paw and contribute to feelings of well-being. Studies show that interacting with dogs (read: walks, play sessions, fetch, or just a good scritch) can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, and lower blood pressure. Cat owners report that their pets have an overwhelmingly positive impact on their mental health.
The fact that people feel good around their pets is probably no surprise, but the effect isn’t just emotional, it’s physical. Playing with pets has been shown to elevate levels of both oxytocin and dopamine, sometimes called the “feel-good” hormones responsible for positive moods. But the positive influence of pets doesn’t end there.
Pets get you moving
It’s no secret that healthy habits, like exercise, play an important role in our mental health. In addition to affection, pets—especially dogs—need exercise, meaning you’ll be exercising along with them. Walks, runs, and play sessions, and enrichment sessions, are good for both of you. Even better: Making exercising with your pet a daily activity and maintaining a schedule can lead to a better sleep routine and improved overall health.
Therapy dogs vs. service animals
Pets have helped and worked with humans for, quite literally, millennia. Those jobs have evolved over time. Today, animals can fulfill important roles in our mental health. Service dogs, working dogs, and emotional support animals all help out, but the terms aren’t interchangeable.
- Service dogs are specially trained to perform tasks for people with disabilities. They have full public access rights so they can perform their tasks wherever their owners go. The work the animal does is directly related to a specific condition. Guide dogs help those with vision impairments. Psychiatric dogs help provide comfort, protection, and assistance to people with a wide variety of mental health conditions. Service dogs must be specially trained.
- Working dogs learn to perform tasks that help humans in a specific function. Herding dogs, search and rescue dogs, and detection dogs all perform a specific function.
- Therapy dogs are usually found in settings like hospitals, schools, and nursing homes, trained to provide comfort, affection, and companionship to those who need it. Therapy dogs aren’t trained to live with a specific handler. They’re more like volunteers, with their owners, visiting places where a canine touch can be a healing force.
- Emotional support animals (ESAs) aren’t specifically trained in a task, but their impact can’t be overestimated. These companion animals can ease anxiety, alleviate feelings of loneliness, and help people with phobias manage their symptoms. To be considered an emotional support animal, it must be prescribed by a mental health professional. While there are certain legal rights ESAs have, airlines are no longer required to accommodate them.
While there are specific trainings you can take your dog through to become a therapy dog, service dog, or ESA, your pet doesn’t need a specific title or certification to be good for your mental well-being. Give your dog basic training, regular exercise, love, and affection and you’ll reap those pawsome mental health benefits for years to come.
Should I get a pet for my mental health?
Deciding whether a pet is right for you is a big decision. While the emotional and mental benefits of pets are well-documented, owning a pet isn’t a cure-all and may not be the right choice for everyone. Pets can be hard work. Before owning a pet, you want to make sure you have the resources to care for it. If it’s not the best choice for you right now, but you’d still like to interact with animals, local pet therapy services, friends with pets, and even cat cafés offer opportunities to interact with animals in a less permanent, but still impactful way.
If pet ownership is for you, that’s great, too. If you have questions about pets and mental health, you can always speak with a mental health professional about how it might be a part of your treatment plan.
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