Having a dog, cat or other companion animal in the home can be a boost for mental health, even if it is not a trained service animal. Pets lift our moods, give us a reason to get out of bed, and offer unconditional love and companionship.
A growing body of research backs up what most Americans already believe: pets are good for you. Studies looking at ordinary house pets, trained emotional support animals and the more traditional service dogs, such as seeing-eye dogs, all show that the benefits to their human companions can be significant.
Pets and Depression
For depression, pets offer a huge benefit. First of all, you have to feed your pet every day, and, if it’s a dog, take it out for a walk. That means you have to get out of bed and start functioning at a regular time each morning. Keeping to daily routines supports wellness for both people and animals. Going out for a walk is a proven mood booster, with morning sunshine (and even light on sunless days) regulating your circadian rhythms and helping maintain a balanced sleep pattern.
Pets and Social Support
A 2016 study1 interviewed people in recovery from mental illness who kept pets and asked them first, how important their pet was to their recovery, and second, what role the pet played. Strikingly, almost all of the respondents indicated that their pet was central or near the center of their social support circle. For many, the relationship with the pet(s) was more important than the relationship with other human beings, who were often perceived as having their own agendas and needs, while the pet was focused on its owner.
The study also found that those who experienced stigma because of their mental illness gave an increased importance to the relationship with animals. “Participants in this study had more difficult and contentious relationships with others and experienced greater levels of stigma than those included in studies of chronic physical conditions. This increased the perceived importance of their pets, reflecting the added salience of being labelled with a mental health problem as having a greater impact on one’s sense of ‘self’ than physical illnesses, since the surveillance of moral responsibility may be felt more intensely, and levels of isolation and stigma are likely to be greater.”
Pets and Oxytocin
Oxytocin is a hormone released into the circulatory system in response to sensory stimuli such as touching, and is especially high in women who are breast-feeding, and it is associated with some positive feelings, immune system boost, empathy, and lowered stress. More specifically, though, it is related to a greater sense of connection to those who are inside our “clan” (however we define that) and increased defensiveness against those who are outside our clan. A recent literature review looked at several studies that documented increased oxytocin levels as a result of interaction with animals, and caring for pets.2 Overall, the research shows mounting evidence of positive effects of pet ownership in a variety of areas, including mental health.
Pets Mirror Owners’ Stress
Moodsurfing has encountered one study that offers a warning, not for the pet owner’s health, but for the pet. A 2019 study3 showed that dogs mirrored the stress levels of their owners, and, through interviews, determined that the stress seems to come from the owner, not from the dog. This suggests that with a highly stressed owner, a dog could experience stress levels that could have health effects that the dog would not otherwise have had. More research is needed to discover if different kinds of dogs (or other animals) have different responses to owners’ stress levels.
For more on human – animal interaction, especially dogs, we recommend this article from Bob Evans’ website, The Doggypedia. Evans has collected a number of interesting references related to human mental health and dogs, and his love of dogs shines through in the whole article.
- Brooks, H., Rushton, K., Walker, S. et al. Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: a study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. BMC Psychiatry 16, 409 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3
- Beetz A, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Julius H, Kotrschal K. Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Front Psychol. 2012;3:234. Published 2012 Jul 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234
- Ann-Sofie Sundman, Enya Van Poucke, Ann-Charlotte Svensson Holm, Åshild Faresjö, Elvar Theodorsson, Per Jensen, Lina S. V. Roth. Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners. Scientific Reports, 2019; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-43851-x