Being a mum to my fur baby, a three-year-old chocolate Labrador named Bailey, fills me with happiness on a daily basis. I also grew up with another Labrador, who was a faithful, trusting best friend and confidante throughout my childhood. These two pets have had a huge impact on my life and I know from first-hand experience that they have had a positive effect on my mental health.
But is there any scientific proof to back this claim up? I did some research, and this is what I found:
7 ways pets can improve your mental health.
1. They provide you with a sense of purpose
Let’s be honest. If you live with a chronic mental health condition, there are days when it’s a struggle to get out of bed. When you own a pet, you’re responsible for making sure they’re fed, healthy and happy. If you have a dog, you need to take them for a walk, take them outside to go to the toilet, feed them, make sure they have access to clean water, love them and play with them. Focusing on them and their needs brings you out of your own head and gives you a reason to get up in the morning.
2. They get you outside
Getting outside to take a walk with your pet exposes you to several things that are beneficial to your mental health. While getting enough sun isn’t a huge problem for people living in Australia, getting outside does help boost your vitamin D levels, which is important for both physical and mental health. Yes, being active is usually associated with physical health, but even light exercise like walking can actually give you a natural energy boost, improve your mood and increase your sense of self-confidence. Getting outside also exposes you to a healthy dose of fresh air, which also helps to clear your head and provide you with a greater sense of calm and wellbeing.
3. They can make you feel more calm
Rhythmic patting or stroking your pet can be calming for both you and your pet. Use this action to focus your attention in a mindful way on the sensation of sound (their breathing) and touch (their fur/hair). Doing this will lower stress and anxiety levels and reduce your blood pressure, and any time spent completing a mindfulness activity means less time spent worrying or ruminating.
4. They don’t judge you
I can’t speak for cats (in my opinion, cats often seem quite judgemental… or at least aloof), but in my experience, you can talk to dogs about anything, and they won’t judge you. I’ve practised speeches in front of my dogs before, shared my worries and concerns and, when I was younger and learning how to play the piano, would rehearse and perform in front of an audience of one. It is because dogs are so non-judgemental that there are now programs for children learning to read that utilise dogs so the children have someone to practise reading to. When you have a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, having a confidant who listens without judgement to your deepest, darkest secrets is a lifesaver.
5. They make you feel happy
Pets can cause feelings of frustration when they’re naughty, but they can also bring you endless amounts of joy. Each animal has a unique personality, and you’ll grow to love his or her mannerisms. Whenever your pet does something cute or funny that makes you smile (or even better, laugh!), neurotransmitters cause your serotonin and dopamine levels to rise, which makes you feel happy and calm.
6. They make socialising less awkward
As someone with chronic social anxiety, I’m always more comfortable at a social event if there’s an animal around. I’m the person who always makes a bee-line for the dog and spends the entire event getting covered in animal hair and kisses. And that’s fine by me, because it makes interacting with the actual humans around me much easier and provides a topic of conversation when I don’t know what to say.
7. They love you, unconditionally
The best part of my day is being welcomed home from work by galloping feet, a wagging tail, and lots of puppy kisses. No matter how long my day or how tired I feel, the fact that my dog is always excited and happy to greet me makes everything better. I know that even when I make mistakes or get mad at her for being naughty, she loves me unconditionally, and that feeling does wonders for your self-esteem and, ultimately, your mental health.
So, be thankful for all your pet does for you, and treat them kindly. If you currently don’t have a fur child in your life but now want one (how could you not?!), make sure you check out your local animal shelter so you can give an abandoned animal their new forever home. You’ll both be better off for it.
- Ellis, M., (2013), ‘Study links mental disorders to increased heart disease’, Medical News Today, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/269645.php
- Hall, S.S., Gee, N.R., and Mills, D.S., (2016), ‘Children reading to dogs: a systematic review of the literature’, PLoS ONE 11(2): e0149759. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149759
- Health direct, (n.d.), ‘7 ways pets improve your mental health’, https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/7-ways-pets-improve-your-mental-health
- Reach out, (n.d.), ‘Pets and mental health’, https://au.reachout.com/articles/pets-and-mental-health
- Young, J., (2018), ‘How pets can boost mental health’, The Conversation, https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/life/health/article/2018/01/19/how-pets-can-boost-mental-health