We’ve long known that having a companion animal such as a cat or dog can improve our physical health. The benefits are many – our cardiovascular health can improve due to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, our pets keep us more active, we have fewer visits to the doctor and our immunity is stronger if we grew up with a pet, which can lower the risk of allergies.
There’s now more awareness that the positive impact of sharing our lives with pets goes way beyond the physical. Our connection with them offers psychological benefits that strengthen our mental health as well. There is even evidence that those who already experience mental health problems are better able to manage their symptoms and feel more supported through the connection they have with their animals.
Pets just seem to have special powers when it comes to boosting our moods, but how do they do this?
According to a recent national survey of pet owners in Australia, almost 90% said their pets have a very positive impact on their lives. Most described their relationship with their pets as being somewhere between that of a close companion and a beloved family member. The most commonly cited benefit of pet ownership was the actual relationship, which offers love, affection and companionship. The social support pets provide can also increase our interaction with others, such as meeting people when out walking our dogs.
Speaking of love, the kind of love our pets offer is unconditional. They love us regardless of how we look, how rich we are, how popular or smart we are - they even love us when we’re having a bad day! There’s something healing about this. In their eyes, there is no-one like us and that’s a pretty special feeling. Scientific research has now shown that this unconditional love and our interactions with our pets can reduce our stress hormones (cortisol), increase hormones associated with pleasure and motivation (dopamine) and stimulate the production of oxytocin, the hormone that promotes social bonding.
The power of touch
Mental health experts have acknowledged the importance of touch in people’s lives. Sadly, this need often goes unmet apart from with pets. Physical contact with our cat or dog is soothing, lowers our blood pressure and meets a need for affection. This can be especially vital for those who are lonely, isolated from loved ones, living alone with few social connections or recently bereaved. Research has identified that owners who pet their dogs while gazing into their eyes experience a 300% increase in oxytocin levels (and pets have a 130% increase), suggesting these interactions involve mutual responses that typically occur between mothers and their infants.
There are also specific benefits pets bring according to our stage of life
Growing up with pets helps children develop their emotional and social skills, such as managing anxiety and being nurturing and empathic towards others. These children are more popular than their peers and have higher self- esteem. Looking after pets is a great way to learn a sense of responsibility. There is also evidence that pets can assist lonely children to take part in social and physical activities.
For adolescents, owning a pet can reduce loneliness, despair and futility, and instead, encourages a positive outlook on life and a view that life is fun. It also brings educational and cognitive benefits, such as the ability to consider other perspectives, and increases social competence and friendship networks. And what better companion to help reduce the stress of studying for exams?
Growing older is another time when pets can lift our mood and increase wellbeing. Cats and dogs provide much needed social support for older people living alone. Elderly people living with pets are better able to manage activities of daily living and are more motivated to set routines and get up in the morning.
If we consider why the companionship of pets makes us so much happier, the answer will be different for every animal, but in general, it may come down to a good match between humans and the cats and dogs (and other types of companion animals) we’ve domesticated for companionship over thousands of years.
Pets can boost your mood
Having pets in our lives can be a booster to our moods and our wellbeing - at all stages of life. Speaking to most pet owners, there is no doubt about the benefits of sharing their lives with a special cat, dog or other companion animal. Because our companion animals are so precious, it’s also important that we do our best to meet their physical and mental needs to ensure the benefits go both ways.
If you have any concerns about your own pet’s health, you can be prepared and help provide them with timely access to veterinary treatment with a pet insurance policy.
10 Sep 2020