If you've been struggling with your mental health lately, you're not alone. For the past few years, amidst the chaos of the pandemic, many adults and teens have experienced a decline in their mental well-being. According to the Mayo Institute, symptoms of depression and anxiety have increasingly been reported among Americans compared to rates reported before 2020.
Not so coincidently, pet ownership also increased substantially during the pandemic. Many employed professionals found themselves working from home. Others had more free time on their hands to devote to a dog or cat.
In a 2021 Figo survey of pet owners, four in five revealed that their pet has significantly impacted their mental health in a positive way. Beyond the obvious qualities that draw us to our animal companions, studies agree that owning a pet can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and improve overall mental wellness. So what are the mental health benefits of owning a dog or cat? Let's explore all 10.
Remember: adding a pet to the family is a serious commitment. It should be in the best interest of both the humans and animals involved!
1. Activity Level
If you're already a pet parent, chances are you recognize the familiar morning wake-up call of a walk-loving dog. Most veterinarians recommend that healthy pups get outside for some sort of activity daily, so what better reason to get active! Studies show that people who work out regularly experience increased endorphins ("happy chemicals"), lower levels of daily stress, and a more stable mood overall.
Loneliness is human, and during the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, it became an almost universal experience. Pet parents who lived alone turned to their dogs and cats for companionship, especially when unable to see family and friends. Isolation is routinely considered a contributor to depression, but being responsible for and needed by an animal companion can give individuals much-needed purpose.
3. Love Chemicals
In the same Figo survey of pet owners, more than one-third admitted to turning to their pet for a boost of serotonin at least once every single day of the week. Scientifically, they're not wrong! Research has shown that simply petting your dog or cat lowers both blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol. At the same time, it increases oxytocin - known to many as the love chemical. The totality of this has a positive effect on wellbeing and mood.
Fun fact: Physical affection doesn't just benefit you, but our animal companions as well! It similarly lowers their blood pressure and strengthens the bond between pet and pet parent.
4. Social Connections
Have you ever been stopped by a stranger while out walking your dog? Pets can be a wonderful icebreaker and can push owners to meet new people with a similar interest in animals. They bring us closer together, even virtually. With video meetings becoming the new norm for WFH employees, Zoom has offered a window into our coworkers' private lives. We see pets in our colleagues’ backgrounds all the time, and they’ve become something to comment on, bond over, and discuss. There are hundreds of breed and rescue-specific groups on Facebook, Reddit, Meetup, and other community forums, exposing pet parents to a plethora of new connections. And hey - any friend of my dog is a friend of mine.
Since the height of the pandemic, many former office workers have found themselves deviating from their usual routines. Boundaries between work and home life began to blur and have yet to completely return to normal. Pets naturally require some semblance of a daily routine, which has had a positive effect on many owners. Working in regular breaks to walk the dog or feed the cat can be beneficial to wellbeing and can instill purpose in owners who feel aimless.
6. Mental Stimulation
Another aspect of pet ownership that benefits both animals and humans alike is the training process. Many pet parents will take their dogs to obedience classes or attempt to teach them tricks on their own. It’s a great way to bond with our pets, as well as keep us mentally sharp and stimulated. When we spend time with our cats and dogs and teach them new commands, we're also learning new things ourselves! This can be especially valuable for elderly pet owners who want to improve their memory and build new neural pathways. Plus, exercising our brains can help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Pets are the ultimate masters of living in the moment – fully present and using their five senses to take in their surroundings. Owners who want to flex their mindfulness skills would do well to use their pets as inspiration. Scholars at Harvard Health encourage pet parents to practice relaxation techniques while out on daily walks together. Their advice? Bring your attention fully to your body before you embark. Breathe through the nose slowly and purposefully to regulate oxygen intake. Engage all five senses and enjoy the present moment together with your pet. Finally, attempt to center your thoughts and avoid the temptation to let the mind wander. The more mindfulness is practiced, the more it can be used as a coping mechanism when needed.
8. Self Esteem
Pet owners who suffer from mental illness report that their relationship with their animal companions has increased their self-worth, confidence, and sense of identity. It's true - this unconditional love can work wonders on self-esteem. In fact, for many individuals, the connection they have with their pets may be more deeply valued than bonds they share with other humans. Our pets love and accept us unconditionally and stick with us through highs and lows. Additionally, learning how to train our pets and confidently make decisions on their behalf can contribute to higher levels of self-worth and care.
9. Emotional Intelligence
Studies have shown that children who interact with pets at a young age have an easier time developing relational skills than their non-pet-owing counterparts. This may be because animals require us to practice compassion and sensitivity. Students who interacted with classroom pets demonstrated lower levels of stress and laughed and smiled more during the day. This is a clear illustration of the benefit pets have on mental health.
10. Anxiety Relief
Pet ownership is not always a walk in the park. However, their companionship does have a studied, anxiety-reducing effect. In a study by the CDC, children who had dogs in the home had much lower rates of anxiety than those who did not. Only 12% of kids from dog households reported suffering from symptoms of anxiety versus 21% of kids who were from pet-free homes. We can assume that all the previous factors on this list play some role in why these statistics are so strong.
Bonus: Can pets provide relief for Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Now that winter is just around the corner, many pet owners are likely anticipating the return of SAD - or seasonal affective disorder. Defined as a "mood disorder associated with seasonal changes, commonly seen as depression arising during the winter months" some individuals experience an increase in negative mental health symptoms as the days get shorter. It may come as a surprise, but pets can experience the same low mood come wintertime. Just like their human counterparts, pets have been reported to sleep more and have less energy during colder months. The antidote? Luckily, the activities that may help your pet overcome SAD will likely help you too.
Soak up the sun. Levels of serotonin increase when we are exposed to good old vitamin D. Take Fido out for a stroll when the sun peeks out to energize both of you, naturally!
Pump it up. Slightly increasing both your activity levels when you can is a great way to improve your mood and health simultaneously. Whether it's playing fetch indoors or walking to a heated patio, any extra exertion gets your blood flowing and releases feel-good endorphins.
Stay social. Does your dog like people? Getting out and socializing with friends and family can improve the mental health of you and your pet. Some dogs love the mental stimulation that comes from meeting someone new, and you likely will too.
Cuddle time. As we stated earlier, cuddling with our pets is scientifically proven to increase well-being. If you and your companion are both having a tough time, spending some quality time together can help uplift you both!
Are you among the leagues of pet parents who feel their dog or cat has been invaluable to your mental health? If so, you may be wondering how you can return the favor. Our study found that more than half of pet owners surveyed felt that pet insurance was a good way to say thanks to their companions, and we obviously agree! Show your pet some love and get a quote from us today.
Lizz Caputo is a Content Strategist at Figo, animal enthusiast, and owner of a rescued senior American Bully. Her hobbies include checking out new restaurants in her area, boxing, and petting dogs of all shapes and sizes.