Pets as Therapy: 5 ways owning a pet can improve your mental health

Most people consider their pets as part of their family. The companionship, comfort and purpose our furry little friends offer can have a significant effect on our lives. But do you ever stop and think about the long-term impact owning a pet can have on your mental health?

The first research on pets as therapy appeared around 30 years ago when Psychologist Alan Beck and Psychiatrist Aaron Katcher decided to measure what happens to the body when a person pets a friendly dog, lucky.

The study showed that the subjects blood pressure dropped, their heart rate slowed and their muscle tension relaxed – all of which are signs of reduced stress. Since then, more has been discovered about the connection between pets and mental health, with animal-assisted therapy becoming an important part of mental health treatment.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways owning a pet can improve our mental health:

1. Depression

Pets are a great motivator, especially at 6 a.m. Whether they want their dinner or a walk, pets encourage us to get up and be active, which can be hugely beneficial for people with depression. A 2016 study showed that caring for a pet, no matter how small, for just a few weeks has a positive effect on depression and cognitive function.

2. Socialising

Walking your dog around the local park can lead to a conversation with other dog owners – often, if you’re like me, apologising for an over-enthusiastic pup. Caroline Harris, our in-house psychologist, said: “even these small interactions can help people stay socially connected and feel less withdrawn.”

3. Loneliness

A pet is an excellent companion, especially if you live alone. They provide company, security and give people someone to share the day with, even if they won’t stop destroying our socks!

4. Anxiety

Pets can have a calming effect on people. Simply stroking, cuddling or playing with a pet gives people a chance to relax and clear their mind, which is vital for managing anxiety. According to Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford University, “Holding and stroking a pet is calming for many people, even those without anxiety problems.” Like we needed any more excuses for cuddles!

5. Self-esteem

A study conducted at Miami University by Allen R. McConnell found that people who owned pets had higher levels of self-esteem and were “less fearful and preoccupied” than people who didn’t. The increased feelings of meaning and belonging that a pet can provide is hugely beneficial for improving self-esteem.

Sam Weston

Social media manager, content writer and an all-around good guy - I set a world record once upon a time!