On Your Health

Check back to the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog for the latest health and wellness news for all Oklahomans.

Ways Our Pets Help with Stress and Mental Health

24 August 2023

Posted in

We all love our fur babies for their companionship and cuteness, but did you know that they may be beneficial for your health as well? Studies show that keeping a pet can work wonders on keeping your stress levels under control AND can have a positive impact on your physical health as well. Read on to learn the myriad ways your furry (or scaly, or feathery!) BFF is helping to keep you healthy AND happy.

As of 2023, about 87 million American households have at least one pet (that’s about 66% of the population!), an increase of 10% since 1988. The most common pets among Americans are dogs and cats, followed by fish, then rodents, reptiles and large animals (like horses or cows). Longtime pet owners are probably familiar with the occasional steep vet bill (see: when your dog eats a pair of tube socks), and while having a pet may put a dent in your wallet from time to time, the long-term benefits for most people far outweigh the (hopefully) infrequent sock situation. 

Research on the crossover between human health science and pet ownership is somewhat recent, but results trend toward pet ownership being an overall benefit to the mental and physical wellbeing of pet owners. For starters, people who own one or more pets generally have lower cortisol levels (the chemical that causes stress), while also raising fell-good hormone levels (like oxytocin, the same hormone that bonds babies and mothers).

Lowering cortisol and increasing oxytocin also helps lower blood pressure. Petting and holding an animal is also very soothing. Recently, researchers at Washington State University recruited 249 college students for an experiment. Their task was to pet and play with cats or dogs for ten minutes. Students’ cortisol (stress hormone) levels were measured three times: while students awaited their turns with the cats and dogs; as they watched others play with the animals and after they’d had their turns. The students showed the most significant decrease in stress hormones after spending ten minutes petting a furry friend, more than during the other two measurement periods.   

While having a particularly difficult pet (a dog who refuses to sit and stay, for example) may have the opposite effect, research indicates that most people experience improvements to their general mental health with pets in the family. One reason for these benefits may be that having a furry friend around decreases loneliness, which is an instant mood-booster. A 2011 study found that pet owners experience better self-esteem than people who are not pet owners. Another study indicated that, when it comes to helping mitigate depression, pets provide greater social and emotional support than humans do. 

Another pet-owning plus is that people with dogs, in particular, are more likely to be physically active (going to the park, going on walks, etc.). Staying active lowers cholesterol, improves quality of sleep, and increases endorphin production. All of these factors combined contribute to a lowered risk of heart disease. Physical activity is also linked to better mood and overall health, so it’s no wonder having a canine companion makes us feel good!

While taking your dog for a walk can help your physical health, it can also help with social connection (a key piece of the mental health puzzle). People who walk their dogs regularly are more likely to strike up a conversation with strangers (who may also have a dog, or who may just want to pet yours). Turns out Fido is quite the social butterfly!

Pets have been shown to benefit children with behavioral issues as well. Children with ADHD, autism, ADD and other challenges exhibit lower stress levels, sharpened focus and improved emotional and social development as a result of regular interaction with animals. Even a few minutes per day spent with an animal can boost oxytocin and dopamine levels (the feel-good chemicals in our brain), as well as decrease a child’s anxiety. What’s more, children with pets at home learn to recognize moods and patterns of behavior, which is highly beneficial for kids on the autism spectrum as they navigate social interactions with their peers.

Another way animal interaction can help kids and teens is by teaching responsibility and accountability. If the job of feeding and walking the dog is left up to your child, they’ll step up to the task. Kids with ADD or ADHD can benefit from the structure that goes along with taking care of a pet, as it helps create a stable daily routine. Being responsible for a pet can also help give kids a sense of purpose, which is a great way to build the confidence of a budding teen or tween.

You may have seen emotional support dogs or other types of therapy animals used in hospitals to comfort patients. This is a common form of treatment because dogs help keep people focused on the present moment rather than on the future, which can assist with stress and anxiety. Additionally, when patients start to feel overwhelmed, support animals are helpful because they provide an infectious sense of calm, allowing patients to take a deep breath and relax.

Additionally, dogs and cats give their owners unconditional love, which can make all the difference in the world to someone struggling with depression or anxiety. Having a companion you know you can count on at the end of a “ruff” day is an undeniable comfort, and though our pets can’t solve all our problems, they sure can help.

For more health and wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.

Worry and Anxiety: Ways to Tell Them Apart

Laughter Yoga: Why Laughter Really is the Best Medicine

On Your Health Blog