When I mention the word “pet,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of a dog, a cat, or your pet food or vet bill. While mental health may be the furthest thing from your mind, the two terms are more related than we often realize. Did you know studies show that owning a pet improves one’s mental health? Below, I’ll cover my personal experience with how pets affect mental health and more about how they can enhance our lives.
My Experience With How Pets Affect Mental Health
In 2019, I ran my fourth Boston Marathon. Whether it’s your first or tenth, running a marathon comes with challenges. During this marathon, I experienced horrible cramps and crazy weather changes, including wind, rain, temperature fluctuations, and more.
But what happened to me on the route near Ashland State Park created a memorable experience that I love recalling. In all his glory, Spencer, the official dog of the Boston Marathon, was sitting there. He had been a fixture at all Boston Marathons since 2015, greeting and cheering on runners while holding a “Boston Strong” flag in his mouth. While Spencer was not my pet, simply seeing him and his encouraging tail wag gave me a much-needed mental boost to continue the long journey ahead. He was indeed a sight!
Unfortunately, Spencer died in February 2023 from liver cancer. Penny, his “soulmate,” died just eight days later of cancer (and, if you ask me, a broken heart). Because this extraordinary duo touched so many lives in their time on earth, dozens of golden retrievers paid tribute to them ahead of the recent Boston Marathon on April 16.
The way Spencer and Penny affected runners’ mental well-being during the race was astounding – there’s no way to describe it. This phenomenon also holds for personal pets.
My furry, four-legged friend Zoey has been my training partner for years. Our ten-mile runs were the highlight of her day – she couldn’t wait to go! But because she started losing a lot of weight last fall, our ten-mile runs went down to five miles, and now they’re down to one or two. We recently found out the cause of her weight loss and lack of endurance is cancer.
While I can’t cure Zoey, I can spend her last days trying to repay her for her loyalty, emotional and mental support, and love. I know wouldn’t be where I am today, mentally and emotionally, without Zoey’s companionship.
After all, Dan Gemeinhart, author of The Honest Truth, said it best: “Dogs die. But dogs live, too. Right up until they die, they live. They live brave, beautiful lives. They protect their families. And love us, and make our lives a little brighter, and they don’t waste time being afraid of tomorrow.”
How Pets Improve Mental Health
Each person’s experience with how pets affect mental health will vary, depending on the pet they own and their unique circumstances. However, pets often affect mental health in the following ways:
- They help us to feel loved and can help increase our serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin production.
- Dogs, cats, and other pets help combat feelings of loneliness. Companionship is one reason so many people adopted pets during the pandemic and why there are now more homes with pets than children.
- Pets can help lower stress and anxiety levels.
- Pets encourage you to go outside, exercise, and get fresh air – all these things are excellent for mental health!
- They can help reduce PTSD symptoms, especially in veterans.
- Pets can help reduce feelings of worry and irritability.
- They help us feel happier – a 2016 study reported that pet owners are more satisfied with their lives than non-pet-owners.
- Dogs (and horses) can help reduce depression levels, so they are often used in therapy sessions.
How Therapy Animals Can Help People With Mental Health Challenges
Number 8 on the previous list mentioned how animals are often used in therapy. Let’s dig deeper into therapy animals and how they can help with emotional and cognitive function.
Therapy animals support people with mental and emotional health challenges. These trained animals often visit hospitals, rehab facilities, schools, nursing homes, and therapy offices. Therapy animals are usually dogs or horses. They can assist with the following conditions:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Bipolar Disorder
- Cognitive Disorders
- Fears and Phobias
- Learning Disorders
- Mood Disorders
- Substance Use Disorder
- Trauma Recovery
If you feel animal-assisted therapy might benefit you, speak to your therapist or healthcare provider about this option.
Things to Consider Before Getting a Pet For Mental Health Reasons
Now that we know how pets affect mental health, you may be eager to run out and adopt a dog, cat, or another pet. Before leaping, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have enough space to accommodate this pet?
- Can I afford the animal’s care costs, including food, grooming, and vet bills?
- Can I keep up with this pet’s activity and energy levels?
- Do I have enough time to take care of the animal properly?
If you cannot adopt a pet for one of these reasons, that’s okay. Instead of adopting, consider dog sitting for a friend or volunteering at a local shelter so you can still enjoy a few mental health benefits!
More Resources For Mental and Emotional Well-being
Are you seeking more free resources to help with your emotional and mental health? Check out my blog, where I discuss various ways to help you thrive through life instead of simply surviving.
Speaking of thriving, you don’t want to miss out on my book Thriving in the Storm: Nine Principles to Help You Overcome Adversity. Each chapter shares ways you can become the best version of yourself, from finding your purpose to identifying and breaking negative patterns. I can’t wait to hear what you think and how it’s helping you thrive through life’s storms!