To mark World Mental Health Day, which takes place on October 10th, we wanted to take a moment to recognize all the ways that having a pet can improve your mental health. During times like this, especially, your pet can be a great source of support in your daily lives.
Pets are a key part of a number of therapeutic practices, so it’s no surprise to learn that their presence has an impact on our mental health. Researchers have found that when we play with an animal for as little as five minutes, our body sees a reduction in the levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as an increase in the production of serotonin and dopamine – neurotransmitters which contribute to feelings of calmness and relaxation. Further studies have also found that these human-animal interactions increase the release of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress in our body.
The act of caring for a pet gives you a sense of purpose and meaning. The caregiving tasks that pets rely on you for, such as feeding, watering, and exercise, become part of your daily routine. Over time this routine becomes a healthy habit, such as waking up early and taking regular walks outside. Especially for those living alone, pets provide company, security, and social recognition – identifying another being as someone with which you have an important social bond. These social bonds are critical to avoiding feelings of loneliness and depression.
Pets provide you with social recognition but they also help you stay socially connected with others, which is known to have a positive impact on your mental health. Especially during these times, you likely have far fewer social engagements than you did previously. This is where your pet comes in – caring for them puts you in situations where you can safely socialize with others. For example, when you take your dog for a walk it gives you the opportunity to talk with other pet parents while your dogs interact. Cat parents, on the other hand, can strike up a conversation with others at the pet store by asking their opinion on different products. These regular interactions help pet parents stay socially connected with others in their community.
Unconditional love affects so many aspects of not only your mental health but your physical health as well. The wonderful things about pets are that they truly do love you unconditionally – they are entirely indifferent to things that other humans may pass judgment on. When you something in your life that provides you with unconditional love, like your pet, you experience greater stress resilience and are better at building positive relationships with those around you. From a physical health perspective, unconditional love also helps you develop a stronger immune system!
If you’ve ever meditated, you’ll be familiar with the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the process of bringing your attention to the present and accepting the thoughts and sensations you currently feel. By focusing only on what’s happening now, rather than thinking about what happened yesterday or what may happen tomorrow, you’re better able to deal with adverse events. Pets are naturally mindful, living completely in the moment. Spending time with them and seeing them accept and enjoy everything they experience is a great reminder to practice mindfulness yourself.
These are just a few of the many ways that your pet helps improve your mental health – we’d love to hear about others in the comments!