How Owning a Pet Can Improve Mental Health

Photo of dog showing pets can improve mental health.
Photo by Christine John

I turned off my alarm and rolled over. A wave of depression came over me. My usual restlessness had recently caused some upheaval in my life. And it seemed as though this pandemic would never end. “Why is it that I can’t just be still?” I wondered. Everyone else seemed to be riding out this quarantine so much better than me. My tendency to scold myself kicked in, and I felt the depression worsen. I did not want to get up and face the day. I didn’t even want to take the next breath. My mind was made up. I would stay in bed all day and wallow in self-pity. “Who would notice anyway?” I thought.

The dogs were restless and started pacing around the room. I got out of bed and opened the back door. There happened to be a spectacular bright pink sunrise lighting up the sky. “I don’t care,” I told myself. I let the dogs back in, headed back to bed, and buried myself under the covers. Both dogs jumped on the bed. My larger dog is somewhat like a big fuzzy teddy bear. He seemed content to snuggle up with me and allow me to linger for a while. My younger dog, a small terrier mix, was wide awake and started licking my face. I didn’t move. The small dog then left to retrieve a bone, jumped back up and the bed, and started chewing loudly.

Photo by Christine John

The Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Be Very Powerful

My mind drifted to a dark place, and I wondered what was really the point in even trying anymore. The last year had been full of challenges. For almost twelve months, I had struggled to adjust to working solely online and limiting social interaction. I was starting to feel worn down. “Would anyone even notice if I just gave up?” I asked myself. The bright pink sunrise turned to a soft yellow glow, and my small dog nuzzled up against my face. “The dogs would notice.” I thought. My dogs needed me. I had to get up and feed and walk them and spoil them like only I could. I patted both dogs on the head and got out of bed. It was time to tackle another day in quarantine.

Owning a dog can be good for our mental health. In fact, any pet happens to be good for our mental health, even fish. The bond between humans and animals can be very powerful. And the positive correlation between pets and mental health is undeniable. Scientific studies validate the benefits of owning a pet and show that animals help with depression, anxiety, and stress. Also, they provide companionship and ease loneliness. A study done 30 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania found that when a person pets a dog their blood pressure goes down, their heart rate slows, and their muscles relax.

Photo of dogs showing how owning a pet can improve mental health.
Photo by Christine John

Research Suggests that Owning a Pet Can Improve Mental Health

Newer research suggests that pets are beneficial for people with mental health disorders. Pets can provide unconditional love and support and help ease feelings of worry, distress, and loneliness. They also provide acceptance without judgment which many people do not receive from other relationships. Pets can also force people to stay connected with the outside world and engage in physical activity. They can be particularly beneficial for those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts by reminding them that their animals need them.

While the benefits of owning a dog may outweigh the benefits of having a goldfish in that, a dog will get you up and out the door to take a walk, owning any pet can improve mental health. Researchers initially found that dog and horse owners were more bonded to their animals than owners of fish and reptiles. But they also found that any type of pet can be beneficial. Having pets helps us look forward to the future.  You might anticipate your next hike. Or you might contemplate going to the store and finding the perfect treat your pet will love. Pets can help calm and relax us, provide companionship and decrease our loneliness. They also provide structure and routine in our lives and give us things to look forward to in the future.

Photo of a dog showing how owning a pet can improve mental health.
Photo by Christine John

As I sit here writing, I have one dog curled up in my lap and another keeping my feet warm. I feel a sense of wholeness and joy as I look out at the sunny blue sky. I know there will be more days when I don’t feel like getting out of bed. But I also know that there will be two warm fuzzy creatures there to encourage me. That encouragement and the knowledge that pets can improve mental health makes being a pet owner worthwhile.