Their cute factor isn't the only thing they have going for them.
If you have a pet—especially one of the furry variety—you're probably familiar with the surge of love you feel when she curls up next to you. Or the way petting his head and feeling his soft fur under your fingertips makes a stressful work day fade into the distance. It's not just love. Your pet can have a real physiological impact on your body and can measurably ease distressing symptoms from depression, anxiety, PTSD and more.
Whether you have a diagnosed mental illness, or simply experience loneliness, sadness or stress (don't we all!), here's how your pet helps you cope:
1. She'll increase feel-good hormones.
Studies have found that interaction with dogs, specifically our own pets, increases levels of feel-good hormones including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin (which combats the stress hormone cortisol). Petting your own pup for 15 minutes can also decrease blood pressure.
2. He's non-judgmental.
For many people, a therapist's office becomes a safe space to discuss negative thoughts and fears without interruption or judgment. But what if you can't afford therapy or have trouble finding a therapist that you trust? A pet can provide that support because he'll never interrupt, criticize, give unwanted advice or gossip about your deepest, darkest secrets. He gives unconditional love and that promotes self-acceptance.
3. She's a comforting presence.
In Canada, there are more one-person households than any other type of living arrangement. That means many of us come home to an empty house or apartment and go to sleep and wake up alone. A pet becomes like a roommate, offering a physical presence—and often physical contact—that alleviates loneliness.
4. He offers distraction.
One issue with mental illness is many sufferers turn inward and become obsessed with repetitive, negative or suicidal thoughts. Pets can bring their loved ones back into the present moment in the same way that practising mindfulness encourages an awareness of the surrounding environment. Sweet little clowns, our pets can provide humour or redirect our attention to a game or activity. Service dogs, in particular, are trained to interrupt rumination, sometimes by nudging their owner.
5. She provides perceived protection.
For an individual with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a tendency toward hypervigilance (meaning they're always on high alert for signs of danger), or who experiences bouts of paranoia, a pet can act a bit like a safety blanket that offers protection against potential threats, real or imagined. Even if that protection comes in the form of sounding an alarm when there's an intruder or fire, it may help an anxious person sleep better at night.
6. Active animals promote exercise and social interaction.
Isolation and inactivity can be side effects of mental health issues, but any animal that needs to be exercised will get its owner outside—maybe even out into nature, which can improve happiness and world connectedness. Dogs, in particular, build social capital because they encourage community engagement. (How many times have you stopped to say hi to someone because of their cute pup?)
Of course, there are many factors that can affect the benefits of pet ownership including your pet's personality. For example, an aggressive animal might increase your cortisol levels and lead you to avoid social interaction—not helpful when it comes to mental health! A busy schedule and financial instability could also provide a barrier to positive interaction, meaning that owning a pet may not be the right choice for you. However, if you have the time and money, and can find a pet who suits your personality, he could play a big part in your recovery or in the preservation of your wellbeing.