How Dogs & Cats Support Our Mental Health

Reviewed By Julie •  Updated: 07/09/20 •  9 min read
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Do you feel a strong bond with your dog or cat? Do you consider your fur baby a member of the family? If so, then you’re in very good company! Many people around the world have wonderful companion animals who bring much love to their lives.

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Why is it that our pets work such wonders in our lives? Have you ever been upset or sad, and your furry companion came to console you? Or do you both have so much fun together that time passes without you noticing? There’s a reason for that, which we’ll cover in this article!

Psychological Benefits of Owning a Dog or Cat

Science has been curious about the powerful connections we have with our pets. Over and over, research continues to show there are many benefits to having a pet.

Some of the first research on the connections between pets and pet parents was one about 30 years ago. The work was done by psychologist Alan Beck of Purdue University and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania.

Their results were truly astounding. In their studies, measurements were taken to see exactly how the human body reacts when someone pets a friendly dog. Here are some of what their results showed:

In other words, pets were found to reduce stress in humans, even in people who are not “pet” people. Not only do pets help us with our health, but they also help us with our mental health and wellbeing.

Since that time, studies have continued over the years on the interactions between people and their pets, and how pets benefit their pet parents. Studies done by HABRI (the Human Animal Bond Research Institute), they found that veterans living with PTSD experienced better mental health and wellbeing if they had a service dog. In addition, they experienced the following benefits from having a service pet:

If you’ve been a pet parent to one or more fur babies, then you won’t be surprised by these findings. The fact that our fur babies help us feel better is nothing new; however, the scientific studies show exactly how our pets effect our overall physical and mental health. This is exciting news, even if you’re an experienced pet parent.

Mood Boosting Power of Pets

Much research has been done specifically on the effects that cats and dogs can have on our lives. These pets, more than others, have the ability to lower stress, ease anxiety and more. Caring for another living being seems to have a powerful effect on us.

However, it’s not only dogs and cats that can be beneficial; being the pet parent of any animal can have profound effects on our wellbeing. Studies have shown that being a pet parent, to any animal, has these effects on pet parents:

Each study shows the same affect and the fact that pets are good for mental health and physical health. Our fur babies offer us so much love, comfort and companionship. Here are some more interesting facts on how they can affect certain health issues:

Depression: studies have show that pets, especially dogs, are great at getting us to be more active and exercise. This can be a great way to help patients who have depressions. For instance, scientists have found that just petting, playing or sitting near a pet can help a person calm and relax their minds. They also found that caring for a pet helps a person find purpose and reward in their days, along with a healthy sense of achievement. People, who have depression, feel more valued and needed, too.

Loneliness: when it comes to feeling lonely, a pet can help there, too. The reason is that our fur babies become a companion. They provide company, security and another living being to share the day with. And pets have been found to be especially helpful for seniors, especially those living alone.

Socializing: dogs get us out and about; in fact, when you’re out walking your dog, people sometimes stop to chat and ask questions about your fur baby. This helps people who are feeling withdrawn and those who have issues with socializing. Being out and about with their fur baby make sit easier and more comfortable to interact with other people, and even develop friendships.

ADHD and Autism: pets are also work wonders for kids who have ADHD or autism. Having responsibility for a pet can help these children learn how to be responsible, and the pets offer them companions who do not judge them and accept them as they are. In addition, for kids who autism, having a pet can help develop sensory integration. Pets also help them to calm down and increase the desire to connect socially with other people.

Can Dogs Help Mental Health?

Scientists wondered if there was a difference between having a cat or a dog, and if one of these pets helped mental health and overall wellbeing than the other. The answer they found is that dogs drive emotional well being more than cats.

Now if you’re a cat person, please don’t be offended! The scientists were not saying that dogs are better than cats. Not in any way. They only noticed through research that dogs seemed to help more with mental health than cats. While cats are better for some people, why did dogs appear to help more?

Part of the reason that dogs may be effective for more people is that dogs have been with us for thousands of years. Dogs were domesticated early with cats; as a result, they’ve been living with us for longer than cats. While cats are beautiful, loving fur babies, for most people they are too aloof and like to have things on their own terms. On the other hand, dogs are more emotionally similar to us, which can make it easier to relate to them.

The reason seems to that the bond between a pet parent and their dog are more similar to bond we develop with our babies. These social bonds are what drive mental health. For instance, when you’re alone too much, you may begin to feel down or depressed. However, if you have a dog and he comes bounding up to you with that goofy look on his face, then right away you feel just a little better.

That bond is a strong one that even affects our minds. For instance, researchers conducted a study of 18 women. They scientists ran MRI scans on the women and looked to see which parts of the brain were affected when they looked at images of their child pet a dog. The women showed similar responses in regions of the brain that are involved with reward, emotion and affiliation.

For these reasons, dogs make wonderful therapy animals. They seem to have a connection with us, and feel empathy for us that works even on people who struggling with various mental health issues. Dogs are being used as therapy animals in prisons, hospitals, care centers, and more. This is because of the way they can connect with us—a connection that is dear and works to improve our mental wellbeing.

How Pets Help Us Every Day

So, in more concrete ways, how do pets (cats, dogs, horses and more) help us feel better? Let’s take a look:

Pets are not judgmental: does your fur baby care if you have makeup on, if you’ve done your hair, you’re overweight, etc.? The answer is a firm no! They don’t care if the house is a mess. All they care about is spending time with us and loving us.

Increase our physical activity: any pet can make us more physically active. The reason is because you have to care of your pet, no matter what type of pet you have. When it comes to exercise, dogs are great for getting us out and walking, hiking, and more. Plus, when you have to be outside with your fur baby (or possibly be outside with your scaly pet), you are outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Being outside in nature has been shown to increase our overall mental health and physical wellbeing.

Keep us on schedule: if you have a dog or a cat, then you know how they keep you on schedule! They get you out of bed every day, whether you like it or not! In this way, they keep us on schedule and get us out of bed, which works to improve our mood. Now, that’s the case, unless they get you up at 3 or 4 AM, then you may not be in such a good mood!

One last great benefit that pets give us is unconditional love. Our pets give us unconditional love. They don’t judge us on our capabilities, how much money we make (or not), and more. Pets just love us because we love them and care for them, which is a great gift and a huge benefit when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing.

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Julie is a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, where she studied Animal science. Though contrary to the opinion of her parents she was meant to study pharmacy, but she was in love with animals especially cats. Julie currently works in an animal research institute (NGO) in California and loves spending quality time with her little cat. She has the passion for making research about animals, how they survive, their way of life among others and publishes it. Julie is also happily married with two kids.

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