Do pets help improve our mental health?

Nothing compares to the joy of coming home to a loyal companion. A pet can do more than keep you company – research shows that pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve your cardiovascular health. Caring for an animal can help children grow up more secure and active. Pets also provide valuable companionship for older adults. Perhaps most importantly, though, a pet can add real joy and unconditional love to your life.

Not surprisingly, recent surveys confirm that pet ownership in Canada increased throughout the pandemic, with 60% of households reporting ownership of at least one cat or dog.

Considering this month’s focus on mental health, we wanted to share some information about the benefits of pets on human mental health, as well as some thoughts on how to spend time with animals if you don’t have the means or time to own your own pet.

Any pet can improve your health.

While it’s true that people with pets often experience greater health benefits than those without, a pet doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog or a cat. A rabbit could be ideal if you’re allergic to other animals or have limited space but still want a furry friend to snuggle with. Birds can encourage social interaction and help keep your mind sharp if you’re an older adult. Snakes, lizards, and other reptiles can make for exotic companions. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and lower your pulse rate.

How can a pet help improve my mental health?

One of the reasons for the therapeutic effects of owning a pet is that pets fulfill the basic human need for touch. Even hardened criminals in prison show long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with pets, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time.

Caring for a pet can help our mental health in many other ways, including:

  • Increasing physical activity. Isolation and inactivity can be side effects of mental health issues, but any animal that needs to be exercised will get its owner outside—maybe even out into nature, which can improve happiness and world connectedness. Dog owners are likely to take their pets for a walk or run every day. This can be a fun way to fit exercise into your routine.
  • Providing companionship. In Canada, there are more one-person households than any other type of living arrangement. Pets can give you a sense of security and someone to share the day with. Caring for them can help you feel wanted and needed. This can be especially valuable for older people or those who live alone.
  • A calming presence. Even a pet’s presence can do wonders for calming you down and easing anxiety. Studies show pet owners have significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate both before and while performing stressful mental tasks.
  • Increasing “feel-good” hormones. Studies have found that interaction with dogs, specifically our own pets, increases levels of feel-good hormones including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin (which combats the stress hormone cortisol).
  • Boosting self-confidence. Pets can be great listeners, offer unconditional love, and won’t criticize you; this can help your self-confidence, especially if you feel isolated or misunderstood.
  • Helping meet new people. Dog owners often stop and chat with each other on walks. Dogs in particular have also been found to help build social capital because they encourage community engagement.  But other pets can be a way to meet people too: in pet shops, training classes or online groups, for example.
  • Adding structure to your day. Feeding, exercising, and caring for a pet can help you keep to a daily routine, which can help you feel more grounded and focused. It can give your day purpose and a sense of achievement.
  • Pets may also help with specific conditions.
    • People with ADHD(Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) may benefit from the structure and routine that a pet needs. Managing their pet’s responsibilities and keeping track of time – to feed or walk them on time, for example – may help them in other areas of their lives. Some people with ADHD are hyperactive – especially children – and playing with a pet can be a great way to release excess energy, whether that’s walking a dog or running around with a kitten.
    • Autistic people can benefit from having a pet. Pets provide the kind of unconditional relationship that can help someone build social skills and confidence. They can provide a sense of calm and reassurance if their owner feels overwhelmed. Autistic children with sensory issues can involve their pets in sensory integration activities to help them get used to how something feels against their skin or how it smells or sounds.
    • Pets can provide perceived protection for individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or a tendency toward hypervigilance (meaning they’re always on high alert for signs of danger), or who experiences bouts of paranoia. A pet can act like a safety blanket that offers protection against potential threats, real or imagined. Even if that protection comes in the form of sounding an alarm when there’s an intruder or fire, it may help an anxious person sleep better at night.

Is having a pet right for me?

While we are all for the benefits of having a pet, it is important to note that owning a pet is a serious commitment and not something to do on a whim. You’ll need to have the time, money, and energy for a pet, as well as a calm home environment with routine and consistency. Fostering a pet or helping a friend with theirs can help you see whether having your own is right for you.

When you’re ready to think about getting a pet, consider:

  • how much outdoor space do you have,
  • how active you are,
  • how much time do you have to spend with your pet,
  • how much money you have for vet’s bills, insurance, food, toys, etc.. Some charities offer low-cost vet care, but they are limited to certain areas and have financial criteria.

The BC SPCA has a great article about other key things to think about before you get a pet.

What if I can’t have a pet?

If you can’t afford a pet, live somewhere you’re not allowed one, or you’re worried about having times where you’re too unwell to care for a pet, there are other options.

The simplest option may be spending time with friends’ pets, whether that’s walking their dogs, stroking their cats, or cuddling their guinea pigs. Your friends might be glad to have someone to pet sit for them while they’re on holiday. You can also consider signing up as a house-sitter: you look after someone’s home, garden, and pets in return for free accommodation.

Helping animals in need is another great way to spend time with them. Those interested in volunteering in BC can check out Wildlife Rescue Association and Critter Care Wildlife Society to help wild animals, Cross Our Paws Rescue to help dogs and puppies, VOKRA or RAPS Cat Sanctuary to help cats and kittens, and Vancouver Rabbit Rescue to help rabbits and bunnies, just to name a few.

Contact a rescue centre near you to see what volunteering opportunities they may have. They may need volunteers to exercise, care for and socialise their pets. You could consider fostering an animal if you can have a pet on a short-term basis but can’t commit to one long-term. Some shy or scared animals need the peace and quiet of a home while waiting to be adopted.

This article in Vancouver is Awesome lists some other great ways to spend time with animals without being a pet owner.

Our veterinary community sometimes need mental health help, too.

A big part of caring for pets is having a veterinarian who can help us with their health and well-being. Currently, there is a shortage of veterinarians and veterinary technologists across North America. As an occupation, veterinarians have higher levels of stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, anxiety and depression, and reported more suicidal ideation and lower resilience than Canadians generally, according to a study conducted by researchers in the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC).

Fortunately, there are resources for vets as well. For example, Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital is one of only a few practices in Canada to hire an on-site social worker to support both staff and clients. There are also resources available through the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

More Resources

If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health, there are free and confidential resources available through Wellness Together Canada. Or visit the Government of Canada mental health website for other resources available in your area. Bell Canada Let’s Talk also has some great resources, and check out this Canadian Living mental health resources roundup.

If you’re in immediate danger or need urgent medical support, call 911.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566. Support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


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