Pets are a big responsibility and can place great demands on their owner’s time, finances and lifestyle. But if you ask many pet owners, they will tell you without any hesitation that their pet is worth all of these burdens. What exactly is it that makes having a pet so rewarding? One theory is that contact with our pets and the experience of pet ownership can offer significant mental health benefits.
Research has shown, for instance, that pet owners are more likely to experience better wellbeing, higher self-esteem, greater physical fitness and less loneliness than non-owners. Pet ownership has also been linked to reduced blood pressure in response to stressful events and challenges. In recent years, dogs and other domestic companion animals have also been employed in the growing use of ‘pet therapy’ for a range of conditions, including dementia, psychosis and depression.
There are a number of ways in which pet ownership or contact with animals can impact our mental health, directly and indirectly. Pets can act as motivators – they encourage their owners to get exercise which is beneficial for mental health by protecting against the effects of stress and boosting mood. Sitting quietly with a pet can also have a calming effect and stroking or playing with a pet can be a very relaxing experience, encouraging a mindful and meditative state.
Indirectly, pets can also boost the amount that we engage in social connection, a really important element of mental health. If you regularly walk your dog at the same time and place each day, you are likely to meet similar dog owners who you wouldn’t otherwise meet. This can provide an excellent social outlet and help you to meet new people. For those with poor mental health, the care-taking role that having a pet creates can also lead to an increased sense of responsibility, purpose and achievement that can contribute to overall wellbeing and recovery.
What if I don’t have a pet?
As mentioned above, pets are a significant responsibility. Accordingly, it isn’t possible for many people – particularly those who work full time – to commit to taking on a pet. However, there are still many ways you can benefit from contact with animals: