Pets Improve Mental Health
Considering this month’s focus on mental health, we wanted to share some information about the benefits of pets on mental health.
There is a reason that 58% of Canadian households  report they own at least one dog or cat – nothing compares to the joy of coming home to a loyal companion. The unconditional love of a pet can do more than keep you company – pets also decrease stress, improve heart health, and even help children with their emotional and social skills.
Pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, is recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health as a legitimate way to treat depression and other mood disorders.
How can a pet help my mental health? 
Caring for a pet can help our mental health in many 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.
Our pet care-takers sometimes need help too.
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 the 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.
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.