How Do Pets Affect Mental Health? A Comprehensive Guide

We at PetListed were curious about how pets affect the mental health of their owners. So we asked Dr. Jennifer Masucci, VMD and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, to provide some insight on the topic.

Did you know, studies have shown that pets act as a mood booster for their owners, and can even improve health by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol? In this guide, we’ll discuss some scientific research behind the numerous mental health benefits of having a dog, cat, or other pet, and where our animal connections may be headed in the future.

Mental Health Benefits of Pets

Increased Quality of Life

Has your life been enriched by your animal companion? You’re not alone. Pets have been shown to increase self-confidence and security, and give people more “meaning” in their life. Many also feel a sense of purpose and pride associated with caring for them.

Emotional Support

Pets show their owners unconditional support, and are a consistent source of comfort and affection. This encourages self-acceptance and calm in times of emotional distress.

Companionship

Pets are a member of the family. Having an animal provides companionship and opportunities for communication, which leads to fewer feelings of loneliness and isolation.

woman holding cat

Tangible Benefits of Owning a Pet

Increased Exercise

A healthy byproduct of owning a pet is exercise! Pets indirectly encourage their owners to get outside to walk, run, or engage in community activities. Many also find themselves spending more time outdoors in nature.

Greater Socialization

While fun at home, pets are also great at bringing people together. Animal owners are more engaged with their friends and family, and even with strangers during walks! Pets also improve confidence in social situations; their presence is a confidence booster when meeting new people.

Productivity

Though pets mean more work, checking off that “dog to-do list” can actually be beneficial. Studies have found that pet owners find their daily activities more meaningful than non-pet owners.

Benefits to People with Mental Health Conditions

Pets can also benefit individuals with a variety of mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia. Each is affected differently, but animals overall lessen the negative impact of the initial diagnosis, distract from symptoms, and provide a source of comfort.

Anxiety: Those with anxiety report that physical contact with their pets is grounding, helping them stay present, rather than fixating on the past or future. Socially anxious people also benefit through easier conversation openers with others.

Depression: Being close to a pet is a mood-booster. Those who are suicidal report that pets give them a sense of purpose, and even help distract from suicidal thoughts in the first place.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: For those suffering from PTSD, pets decrease loneliness, worry, and irritability, and increase calmness. They provide protection and reduce the negative impact of flashbacks.

Bipolar Disorder: Those with bipolar disorder better control their feelings, manage stress, and handle difficult life events in a better way.

Benefits for Children

Children also benefit greatly from having an animal in the family. Children see pets as non-judgmental confidants and sources of acceptance, which in turn improves self-esteem.

Children that interact with animals are found to be more cooperative, and share more often compared to those without animals. Additionally, pet ownership improves child emotional and behavioral problems, as well as anxiety, autism, and Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

small dog and baby

Anxiety: One study found that 21% of children without dogs had anxiety, compared to only 12% of children with dogs. Pets also lessen separation anxiety for those afraid of being home alone.

Autism: Interacting with pets provides a sense of calm and improves social skills. In particular, autistic children with pets were more likely to communicate with others, introduce themselves to new people, and ask/respond to questions.

ADHD: Dogs have been shown to help children with ADHD focus their attention on the task at hand.

Stresses of Owning a Pet

While it’s clear that pet ownership has its benefits, there are a handful of stresses that should be considered.

Financial Burden: Pet ownership requires a financial commitment that not everyone can afford. This may be a significant source of stress if expensive care is required.

Housing Situation: Not all settings are appropriate for every pet, and problematic situations can create tension among people.

Behavior Problems: If improperly trained or unruly, pets can cause frustration and guilt for their owners. Bites from aggressive or scared animals can result in significant physical and mental trauma, and may even trigger lifelong fears.

Death of a Pet: The loss of a beloved pet can be devastating to pet owners, an experience often similar to losing a family member.

Looking Toward the Future

It’s clear that pets provide humans with significant mental health benefits. This may be why so many people choose to keep them — an estimated 67% of United States households have at least one in the family! Pets keep their owners occupied, active, and decrease stress. And because they’re so helpful for mental illness, it’s been suggested that they should be included in their owners’ mental health routine.

At the moment, most doctors don’t consider pet therapy for their patients (or know how to use pets in the first place). In order for the practice to become widely adopted, more research is needed. However, it’s exciting to think that the human-animal bond could be even further strengthened in the coming years.

References

“The Power of Pets: Health Benefits of Human-Animal Interactions.” News in Health. February 2018. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets

Brooks, Helen Louise, et. al. “The Power of Support from Companion Animals for People Living with Mental Health Problems: A Systematic Review and Narrative Synthesis of the Evidence.” BMC Psychiatry, vol. 18, no. 31, 2018. https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2

Brazier, Yvette. “Children with Pets Have Less Stress.” Medical News Today. 29 November 2015. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/303276

“Kids with Pets Have Less Anxiety.” Bassett Healthcare Network. 3 December 2015. https://www.bassett.org/news/kids-pets-have-less-anxiety

Gadomski, Anne M, et. al. “Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?” Preventing Chronic Disease, vol. 12, 2015. https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2015/15_0204.htm

Bedford, Emma. “Number of Pet-Owning Households in the United States in 2019/20, by Species.” Statista. 24 March 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/198095/pets-in-the-united-states-by-type-in-2008/

Dr. Jennifer Masucci
Dr. Jennifer Masucci, VMD is a small animal general practice veterinarian focusing on canine and feline medicine. She earned her veterinary degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Masucci is passionate about educating pet parents, so that they can offer the best care to their furry companions.