Pets are important to Brits: one-in-four of us owns a dog, while nearly one-in-five people have a cat. Quite simply, owning a pet is a pleasure, but mounting research also suggests that it’s good for our mental health. Indeed, one survey found that 74% of people enjoyed improved mental health benefits from owning a pet. Here’s how this is possible.
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It can be hard to motivate yourself to exercise if you’re feeling down, but you’ll have no choice if you own a dog. Your pooch will demand daily walks, and while this makes him or her happy, it can make you feel good, too.
Getting some exercise and fresh air can boost feel-good hormones and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Exercise also encourages you to sleep better at night, which can help support your mental wellbeing.
Loneliness is a major concern in today’s society, with studies showing that people who are socially isolated experience a higher risk of feeling depressed. Owning a pet provides vital companionship to counteract loneliness, and those who have difficulty forming friendships often find it much easier to connect with a pet.
One study found that pet owners living alone aged 60+ were four times less likely to succumb to depression than those who didn’t own a pet. Older people who own a pet also visit their GP 30% less compared to non-pet owners.
Plus, pets are a great facilitator of social interaction. When you’re out walking your dog, waiting at the vets or attending a pet-related event, it’s an easy way to strike up a conversation and interact with fellow pet owners.
Lower stress levels
Researchers have concluded that if you own a pet, your reaction to stressful events tends to be lower compared to those who don’t own a pet. In fact, the blood pressure of study participants was measured during a stressful situation, and the results confirmed that those who owned a pet experienced lower blood pressure readings.
It’s easy to see why pets make us feel less stressed. Playing with them, or hugging and stroking them, invokes a sense of relaxation and calm. Studies have shown that when you stroke a pet, the brain is flooded with the happy hormones, serotonin and dopamine.
It seems you don’t even have to own a pet to benefit from the stress-relief effects. One study found that simply watching fish at an aquarium had the ability to lower pulse rate and reduce muscular tension in participants.
Whether you’re feeling worried, anxious or low, having a pet that demands your attention helps to put any negative feelings to one side. Looking after a pet also gives a person a sense of purpose, responsibility, security and routine. You might struggle to drag yourself out of bed if you’re feeling low, but when you own a pet you need to get up and feed it and take care of it.
Interacting or bonding with your pet is thought to release a chemical in the brain called oxytocin. This so-called love chemical puts you on a high, helping to keep a low mood and anxiety at bay.
Pets accept a person for who they are without judging them, which can boost a person’s confidence and self-worth. In fact, this can become apparent from an early age, where studies have revealed that children who own a pet whilst growing up report higher levels of self-esteem and social skills. Children with ADHD and autism also report improvements in their concentration and behaviour when exposed to pets.