It’s widely accepted today that pets have a positive impact on mental health. A number of studies have shown the many ways that pets can impact our happiness, mood, and even our interactions with other people. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so let’s take this opportunity to explore how pets help mental health and the many benefits of interacting with dogs and cats.
What Is Mental Health Awareness Month?
Mental Health Awareness Month is a movement in the United States to raise awareness about mental health conditions. It was founded by Mental Health America in 1949.
The History of Mental Health Awareness Month
Mental Health America, the organization that founded Mental Health Awareness Month, was founded in 1876 with the original name National Committee for Mental Hygiene. The association was founded by Clifford Whittingham Beers, who came from a family of individuals with mental illness and experienced it himself.
During a hospital stay at a mental institution, Beersa saw the great need for improved care and understanding of mental conditions, which led him to author the book A Mind That Found Itself and establish the foundation to empower others with mental issues. The organization then established the movement of Mental Health Awareness Month in 1949.
This Year’s Theme: Back to Basics
Every year, Mental Health America establishes a theme for the monthly celebration. This month’s theme is “Back to Basics,” intended to familiarize the public with foundational knowledge about mental illness and health conditions. You can learn more on the Mental Health America website.
Ways Pets Can Benefit Your Mental Health
You might be impressed at how pets can benefit mental health in many ways. Here is a list of the most impressive ways pets impact our mental health for the better:
- Pets increase our oxytocin
- Pet companions combat loneliness
- Animals provide mental health benefits to people of all ages
- Dogs can increase social engagement
- Animals can support trauma recovery
- Owning a pet improves self esteem
- Pets provide structure
- Being around animals can reduce anxiety
- Pets make us laugh
Spending Time with Dogs Impacts Your Brain Chemistry
A groundbreaking 2012 study has been cited many times as proof that spending time with dogs can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. The study suggests that this is because spending time with pets – referred to as Human-Animal Interactions (HAIs) – increases our oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is a hormone known to decrease stress and inflammation and increase empathy.
Pets Provide Company and Reduce Loneliness
Another benefit of pets is a reduction in loneliness. This might seem like an obvious benefit, but feeling lonely can be the root cause of many mental health struggles, and creating bonds with others, animals included, has positive effects on our overall mental state. In fact, in a 2019 survey, 80 percent of pet owners said their pet helps them feel less lonely. Companionship is one of the most significant positive mental health benefits of having a pet.
People of All Ages Benefit from Animal Interaction
The same 2012 study showed that seniors, adults, and children alike experience mental health benefits from engaging with animals. The study examined a variety of adult groups, including those with existing mental conditions such as anxiety, as well as senior adults living in nursing home facilities and children of varying abilities in school settings and at home. The variety of the sample subjects demonstrated how pets help mental health at every age.
The Presence of a Dog Can Increase Social Engagement
The 2012 study also found that the presence of a dog can increase a person’s likelihood of engaging socially with other people. One 2015 survey showed that pet owners were 60 percent more likely than those without pets to meet new people in their neighborhoods. Human-to-human contact and social interaction is a major indicator of positive mental health, so it follows that having a pet can improve general mental wellness by forming and strengthening one’s relationships with other people.
Animals Can Help with Trauma Recovery
There is also evidence for how pets help mental health after a traumatic experience. One study explored the impact of Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) on people who had experienced trauma such as child abuse or warfare. It was found that spending time with animals reduced depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
Pet Ownership Improves Self Acceptance and Self Esteem
Because pets are inherently non-judgemental creatures, they also contribute to positive mental health outcomes by offering the kind of unconditional acceptance that improves self esteem (especially in children). Owning and caring for a pet can give people with mental illness or other conditions a sense of independence and self-worth that can be vital to their overall mental health.
Pets Provide Predictability and Structure in Your Day
Routines are hugely beneficial for people’s mental health. Knowing what to expect and when to expect it, even for just a small portion of your day, creates a sense of security and comfort. Pets have daily needs such as exercise, feeding, sleep, and play, and keeping your pet on a schedule means you’re on a schedule, too. Pet ownership creates a routine that has positive mental health outcomes.
Simply Petting an Animal Can Immediately Reduce Anxiety
Another study showed that, regardless of one’s feelings towards pets in general, stroking an animal can contribute to a reduction in anxiety. This outcome occurred even when study participants pet a turtle! The study also included stuffed animals, too, and no reduction in anxiety was noted when the participants pet the stuffed animal. This indicates that it is something about the presence of a live animal, rather than the petting motion, that reduces anxiety.
Pets Make Us Laugh
Owners of both cats and dogs have been shown to laugh spontaneously more often than people who do not own pets. Our animals' humorous antics can be extremely entertaining, and even if they just provide us a brief moment of respite from an otherwise stressful day or week, this has positive mental health effects.
How to Celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month with Your Pet
Whether you’re a pet owner already or considering adopting a furry friend, here are some ways you can celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month with your pet:
- Go outside with your pet
- Get them a fun new toy
- Enjoy some treats together
- Adopt a pet if you’re ready
- Try your hand at pet sitting or dog walking
Take a Special Walk or Hike with Your Dog
There are a myriad of benefits to taking a simple walk outside with your canine companion. Dogs need exercise daily, so this should be part of your routine, but you also reap a whole host of benefits from walking your dog. Spending time in nature has a positive effect on your mental well-being, and spending time with your pet has that same benefit – combine the two for the ultimate way to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month.
Bring Home a New Toy for Your Cat
If you share your life with a kitty companion, a new toy and some play time can be another great way to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month. Toys are an important part of your pet’s mental health, and the time you spend engaging with your pet and using those toys to play will benefit you mentally, as well. Grab one of our top interactive toys for cats and introduce a new game to your feline friend.
Express Your Gratitude with a Treat
Treats are a love language all their own. Regardless of what kind of pet you have, pick up some of their favorite goodies (staying healthy and within their daily caloric range, of course) to share with your canine or feline friend. Sharing a yummy bite (or, even better, making homemade dog treats or cat treats) is a wonderful way to express your appreciation for your best friend this month.
If You’re Feeling Ready, Adopt a Pet
While the benefits of owning a pet are clear, you shouldn’t embark upon the journey of pet adoption unless you’re sure you are ready. If you’re thinking of adopting a cat, check out these handy tips. If you’re considering a dog, here are some ways to prepare your home.
Remember everyone is different, and your schedule, home environment, and personal needs will dictate what kind of pet is most appropriate for you. Pets are a pleasure, but they’re also a responsibility.
If You’re Not Ready for a Pet, Try Petsitting
If you’re not ready to adopt a pet all by yourself, you can still experience the mental health benefits of animals by pet sitting or dog walking. If you have a friend who owns a pet, offer to take care of them while your friend goes out to dinner or takes a trip.
If you haven’t spent time around animals before, familiarize yourself with the animal before you take them on solo. If it goes well, you might even set up a steady schedule where you walk your friend’s dog or feed their cat once a week. It doesn’t take much to experience the mental health benefits of animals in your life.
All Pet Owners Know How Pets Help Mental Health
Even if you’ve never thought about the mental health benefits of being a pet parent, you likely recognize several of the positive ways that pets help mental health. Perhaps you get a boost of oxytocin when your dog jumps into your arms at the end of a long day, or you find yourself laughing hysterically as your cat chases the elusive red dot. Whatever it is, pets make life better, so we can be grateful for them during Mental Health Awareness Month this May.