The Mental Health Benefits of Pets

by Elisabeth Kee, LPC

Not long ago, I cried. It wasn’t one of those beautiful melancholic cries that come while watching a particularly touching episode of a new Netflix drama; it was, what I like to call, a  “biggie”. Maybe it was the stress of the holidays, sick family members, or worries about the state of the world. In any case, it all rolled up into a wadded mess too large to chew and too difficult to swallow. As I lay on the couch, tears streaking my face, I felt a soft pressure on my chest. Then two others, of slightly less mass. I did not open my eyes, but I knew their comforting weights instantly. My cats, Rye, Zuko and Potion, had sensed my distress and came to offer their support. Even though they had added more than 20 pounds of weight for my lungs to press against, I found myself breathing much easier.

Pets are so much more than animals who share our home; they are companions who often become integral members of the family. Owning a pet can also have wonderful mental health benefits. Pets have been found to alleviate and mitigate symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma and stress. In this blog post, I will cover the plethora of ways that owning a pet can help those struggling with mental health, along with some thoughts to consider before making the leap to pet ownership.

First, petting a dog or cat has been shown to lower blood pressure and lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone,” and reducing levels of cortisol in the bloodstream has a calming and soothing effect. This effect can be particularly helpful for those who often feel alert or stressed, such as those with anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Petting a dog or cat also engages the senses, which produces a grounding effect helpful in bringing an individual who is dissociating or having a panic attack back to the present moment. Pets also help us feel a sense of companionship and empathy. Many pets have an uncanny ability to know when an owner is in need of some extra snuggles (like in my story above). 

Next, owning a pet can give us a sense of responsibility and motivation outside of ourselves. Pets need love and care in order to be healthy and thrive. In those with depressive symptoms such as feeling unmotivated or low self-worth, it can be hard to find reasons to get out of bed at all. However, clients with depression often tell me that they will get out of bed to take care of their cat or dog. They need us to take care of them, and even if it’s just getting out of bed to refill water and food, or taking the dog for a walk, those activities can go a long way to rediscovering the motivation and purpose. Studies have also shown that pets can be helpful in reducing feelings of loneliness, as well as increasing social interaction between people (Have you ever gotten in a conversation with someone when seeing their cute dog on the street? I know I have!).

Here are a few other ways that owning a pet can aid in mental health:

  • Dogs can help survivors of sexual abuse relearn how to trust and be comfortable with touch.

  • Pet ownership (particularly dog ownership) increases exercise frequency in owners, which can help alleviate depression and stress symptoms.

  • Pets can help teach children concepts like consent and personal boundaries.

  • Pets can help ease family dynamic tension, or give kids the chance to try out new responsibilities.

  • Pets can help provide feelings of security and safety, particularly with trauma survivors.

But before you start googling the closest adoption centers, let’s take a look at a few considerations to keep in mind when choosing a pet.

Adopt when possible: 6.5 million animals enter shelters each year. By adopting, you can potentially save a life, and free up space for another animal to be saved from the street or euthanasia as well.

Understand how long you’re willing to commit: When adopting a new animal into your home, always assume that you will be keeping it for the remainder of its life. Some pets can even outlive humans (such as African gray parrots, who have life expectancies of over eighty years!). Most dogs live for around 8-15 years depending on breeds, whereas cats generally live from 12-18 years but it's not uncommon to have a cat who lives into their 20’s. If you’re looking for a smaller time commitment, consider a rabbit (5-10 year life span), guinea pig (4-8 years) or hamster (2-3 years).

How much work are you willing to put in? Dogs are going to need much more care and energy than a fish or hamster. It’s important that our pets get their emotional, mental and physical needs met, too!

Consider an older animal: Kittens and puppies get snatched up right away, whereas adult and senior pets often are overlooked. Adult pets can be wonderful companions, are often already potty-trained and require less supervision than younger peers.

I hope that this post helps in aiding those thinking about adding a furry or feathery friend to their household to decide what is right for them. In related news and the inspiration for this post, our practice will be adding a new team member! Izzy, Denise’s new French Bulldog puppy, will be coming into the office to help bring comfort and love to our patients during therapy sessions. We are excited to welcome her!

It’s time to live the life you deserve.

*In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to offer telemental health sessions.*

If you’re interested in learning more about individual psychotherapy,  adolescent psychotherapy, child psychotherapy, psychoanalysis or couples therapy, please contact us by submitting this form, or by phone at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

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