Have you ever wondered if there is a link between pets and mental health? We have some exciting news for pet owners! Having a pet is good for your health, there’s no doubt about it! It may come as no surprise to those of you who have pets, but people with pets live happier, healthier and longer lives. In the writing of this article, we found plenty of science out there to prove it.
For example, a detailed Swedish study1 from 2017 found that ownership of a dog leads to reduced incidence of strokes and heart attacks. Researchers found that dog ownership decreases the ominous-sounding ‘all-cause mortality’—something best avoided, I think you’ll agree! In an American review2, researchers also found a 24% lower risk of death in pet owners. This study included dogs again—they get all the limelight.
The positive effects of animal/human friendships are many and varied, as are the reasons why they are so beneficial to us. In this article we’re going to delve into how owning a pet can improve your health. Specifically, we’ve looked at how pets benefit your brain and the science behind this fortuitous phenomenon.
Pets and Mental Health: The Social Animal
The Benefits of Social Interaction
Scientists have found that isolation is as detrimental to our health for us as smoking and drinking alcohol3. Remember that fact the next time you’re invited to a party. Companionship is invaluable to all aspects of our lives, especially as we reach our more senior years. Later, we’ll explore some of the physical health benefits of pet ownership. First, let”s look at the intrinsic value of a social life to the health of our brains.
The human brain is an incredibly complex organ. It’s so complex, in fact, that there is still much to be learned about how it really works. One of the things we know for sure, however, is that social interaction is essential to the health and development of our gray matter, especially as we age4. Having an active social life throughout our lifetime has a protective effect against dementia. It also has a positive impact on our cognitive performance in later years.
We recently published an article on various marvelous ways to keep an active social life. In that article we covered ways to stay social, even when meeting people in-person is difficult. We detailed our top tips to maintain relationships and sociability via the internet.
Pets as Social Companions
But social interaction can definitely include pets, especially ones that we can play and connect with. Arguably, one can interact with any animal. However, in our humble experience, a puppy is definitely more playful than a python. Having a furry, feathered, or even scaly companion to keep us company wards off feelings of loneliness. Our pets also give us a sense of purpose in our day. These interactions provide a positive influence on our physical and our mental health. More on this later…
The rapturous welcome we get from a cat or dog on returning home or the peaceful, mindful hours that can be whiled away playing with a pet hamster, rabbit or rat do wonders for staving off feelings of isolation, and if you’re lucky enough to have a parrot, you can even have a two-way conversation. The downside of this is that the neighbors may think you’ve lost it.
Pets as Social “Ice-breakers‘
Spending time with our pet gives us great joy, plus numerous health benefits. An equally important aspect of pet ownership, however, is the social life that comes through interacting with fellow pet owners, and your community in general. There has been fantastic research (namely this 2015 study)5 into exactly this. In this study, researchers examined the effect of pet ownership on our social lives. The paper’s authors call this: “the indirect role of pets as facilitators for three dimensions of social relatedness; getting to know people, friendship formation and social support networks”. The results are fascinating.
The study highlighted how animals serve as an ideal icebreaker between strangers. Their pets allow them to strike up conversations without feeling awkward. Pets are a neutral area—no one can get offended if you compliment the fluffiness of their pomeranian. There may be the occasional severe words regarding your furry friends choice of toilet area (flower beds are just so tempting!) but these interactions are rare. The research shows that social encounters over pets are overwhelmingly positive.
Animal ownership also facilitates relationships between neighbours in a community. A great example of this is your supposedly loyal housecat, who actually visits every house on the block for treats and rubs. If only they could speak, imagine the gossip they could spread!
Animal lovers feel an affinity and attraction to other pet owners They find that their pets often provide the crucial ‘social lubricant’ needed to make new friends.
Isolation and loneliness, especially as we start to reach our more senior years, are silent killers6, Anything that alleviates them is welcome. Eighty percent of respondents to the study said that they had gotten to know people in their area via their pets. Forty percent said that they had received some form of social support from those new friendships. We’d call that pretty conclusive evidence, and all the excuse you need to adopt a new animal companion.
The Calming Power of Pets
The Downsides of Stress
As we’ve looked at in some other articles, stress is bad for your health in general, and is firmly linked to the deterioration of our cognitive performance. High levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, make your brain unable to function correctly by stopping your synapses from firing correctly. Most surprisingly, stress can actually reduce the size of your brain over time7, and we can all agree that we’d like to retain as much grey matter as possible!
Pets Alleviate Stress
While stress can be hard on the brain, we’ve got good news for you. Simply petting an animal markedly reduces the levels of cortisol in your system and boosts happy hormones like serotonin. This chemical alteration causes lower blood pressure and heart rate, giving you a feeling of calm and happiness. As we saw in our recent article about the benefits of laughter, ‘happy’ neurotransmitters like serotonin are vital in regulating your cognitive functions like mood, anxiety, and feelings of well-being. Simply sitting quietly and interacting in a kind and mindful way with a pet calms people down and helps them release tension. This relaxation is incredibly beneficial for your overall health.
Amazingly, researchers have found that even just ten minutes of hands-on interaction with animals noticeably reduces the prevalence of cortisol in your system8. Researchers gave the participants in the study (a group of university students) ten minutes of petting time. The next morning, researchers tested cortisol levels. The results showed conclusively that the petting time had done its magic.
Keep Calm and Kitty Cat On
The results of the study above lead us nicely onto my next point—the efficacy of comfort animals. We’re going to look at the research into hanging out with animals as an effective treatment for anxiety9.
Pets Provide Comfort
People have been comforted by animals since the first hunter gatherer raised a wolf pup. Caring for and spending time with animals brings us a deep feeling of solace and wellbeing. The recent popularity of official ‘comfort animals’ or ‘emotional support animals’ is simply a way of labelling and legitimizing something which people have acknowledged for thousands of years.
The Science Behind Comfort Animals
Science has also caught up, and researchers have done many studies to investigate the benefits of interaction with animals in reducing anxiety in humans. For those suffering from anxiety, interaction with a pet can be a powerful trigger to stop a panic attack or reduce the severity of an anxious reaction10. “Interaction” can mean everything from a few minutes observing the activity in an aquarium, to cavorting with a playful pet cat or bird (though probably best not at the same time!) Either can be enough to calm one down and relieve anxiety.
All this science is being put into practice with the recent prevalence of comfort animals on university campuses and hospitals throughout the world. Introducing time with animals to hospitalized patients11 has shown significant improvements to their mood and energy levels, and dramatically reduced their stress and fear, whilst creating a ‘healing environment’.
Chasing Away the Black Dog…
When you feel like you just can’t get out of bed in the morning, what better inspiration than a bouncy spaniel licking at your face?!
Pets and Depression
Depression is a modern day scourge, and with the years we’ve had recently, our mental health has been strained even more than usual. There’s no magic bullet when it comes to depression. However, studies have conclusively shown that having a pet goes a long way to alleviating its symptoms12.
As we’ve discussed above, pets are wonderful companions and are great at relieving stress and anxiety. Both of stress and anxiety contribute to depression. Pets also get you out of the house and chatting to people, and help you to build a support network. A network can be invaluable on those occasions when you need a shoulder to lean (or cry) on.
But there are further benefits to your mental health in owning a pet. Simply the responsibility of having another living thing depend on us gives us a sense of purpose. It provides a feeling of drive and positivity. Looking after your pet also adds structure to your day. Structure can be an effective strategy to alleviate the effects of depression.
Pets Make Us Laugh
In addition to all of these wonderful benefits, animals also make us laugh and smile. Many of us have experienced this from watching a kitten gambol with a ball of string or playing fetch with a puppy. Laughter is great for your long term brain health for a variety of reasons. We discussed the benefits of laughter in an article we published a few weeks ago.
You don’t even need to own a pet to enjoy the antics of animals. Just head on over to your favorite social media to find hundreds of silly pet videos. For example, If you need a good laugh, just try this one. The huge rise in cat videos on the internet is a testament to the pleasure we humans attain from the innocent playfulness of our feline friends.
…and Chasing After Your New Four-Legged Coach
Finally, having a pet, in particular a dog, promotes physical exercise and a healthier lifestyle. Exercise helps maintain the health of your brain as you age. It is even known to help stave off cognitive impairment and dementia13. Dog owners are statistically four times more likely to get their recommended daily quota of exercise14. In fact, some countries are even encouraging dog ownership as a public health initiative.
No matter how you look at it, pets both big and small have the power to improve your mental and physical health. So whether you fancy a pigeon or prefer to foster a ferret, developing a relationship with an animal is a surefire way to improve your wellbeing and mood. So get out there and befriend a beast!