In the last several months, the world has gone through a collective trauma regarding COVID-19. Most countries went into some form of lockdown. Many people were separated from family and friends, while others lived the nightmare of being trapped with their abuser with no possibility of escape. Health care workers on the frontlines have been overwhelmed for months with no reprieve in sight as cases surge. Humanity has been stuck on a loop, the isolation amplifying the news cycle on television screens and across all forms of social media, overloading us all with the same fear-driven messaging. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, isolation, loneliness, stress, and trauma have been documented and reported on extensively throughout the news cycles around the world.
While there are various ways of coping with stress and uncertainties of life through exercise, nutrition, self-care activities, and mindfulness, pets can also play an important role (yes, this includes all animals).
The Pet Effect describes a human-animal bond that has mutually positive impacts on health and well-being. For years, pet owners have anecdotally spoken about how their pets provided them with unconditional love, companionship, and joy. More recently, research is starting to back up what pet owners have known for a very long time. Let’s start by talking about benefits:
Increases “feel good” hormones. When interacting with a pet, studies have shown that hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine levels increase substantially. In other words, humans are likely to feel happier, calmer, and more relaxed when bonding with a pet. The best part is that pets also reap the benefits of the release of hormones in their systems after interacting with their humans.
Lowers blood pressure, cholesterol levels, cortisol levels, and cardiovascular disease. Studies have shown that those who own a pet are more likely to have a normal range of blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In one study, individuals who were diagnosed with borderline hypertension were asked to adopt a dog. After five months, not only had their hypertension returned to normal levels, but they had also experienced a reduction in cortisol levels as well.
Increases exercise. Studies have shown that dog owners specifically are more likely to meet the daily exercise recommendations, which can play a role in the “feel good” hormones for both pet owners and pets alike. Other studies have shown that exercise enhances cardiovascular health by improving blood pressure, cortisol, and cholesterol. Furthermore, this mutually beneficial activity can help reduce problematic behaviors in dogs (i.e., destructive chewing and boredom) as well as forge a strong bond between humans and pets.
Reduces stress. Having a pet can reduce stress levels, which is reflected in a 2016 survey conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), 88% of respondents reported their pets reduced symptoms of stress. Additionally, petting an animal mutually fulfills the need for physical touch. Well-documented studies have concluded that touch plays a significant role in early development, relationships, communication, as well as fighting disease.
Increases social interaction and decreases loneliness. This is especially relevant to dog owners, as they are more likely to increase social interaction among other humans in the community. For instance, while taking their dogs for walks or adventures to the dog park, the opportunities for human interactions substantially increase as the dogs become the common interest and talking point. In general, having a pet also reduces loneliness as well as their daily interactions provide companionship to their humans.
Reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma. Since pet owners may have to change their lifestyles to accommodate their pets, the positive influence their pets have regarding social interaction, exercise, and routine can drastically reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma. Animals tend to live in the present moment, which serves as a wonderful reminder for individuals who sometimes struggle with symptoms such as ruminating negative thought patterns. On a side note, pet owners also usually have an increase in confidence levels as more positive experiences are created.
These are just some of the major benefits of having a pet at home, and although it may be tempting to go to your local rescue group to adopt a pet immediately, please remember that having a pet is a responsibility for life. It is important to ask yourself the following questions:
- Having a pet more than likely requires a lifestyle change, especially for dogs who require walks. Are you ready and capable to work your schedule around your pet? Are you ready to limit social engagements as pets will often require you to be home for feeding, cleaning, walking, etc.?
- Owning a pet is expensive. Can you take on the financial cost for their food, veterinary visits, grooming, boarding, and other maintenance fees?
- Part of responsible pet ownership is to ensure the safety of your pet and your community. Are you ready to invest your time, energy, and patience into training and socializing your pet to safely engage with the community?
- Training can help alleviate a pet’s destructive behavior. Are you prepared to expend time and effort on this?
- Some individuals are allergic to pets’ dander, fur, and saliva. If this applies to you or anyone in your household, please think twice before adopting a pet.
There is no shame in answering ‘no’ to any of the questions above. If you are not able to accommodate a pet in your life at the moment, there are always other ways of experiencing The Pet Effect by:
- Volunteering at a local rescue group.
- Pet sitting for your neighbor.
There are so many wonderful physical and mental well-being benefits of owning a pet. While adopting a pet can be beneficial, keep in mind that it is not the only option available in reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and trauma. Take the time to evaluate if this is the right time to get a pet as there is quite a bit of responsibility involved to ensure your pet’s physical and mental well-being.
Allen, K. (2001, March 24). Dog ownership and control of borderline hypertension: a controlled randomized trial [Presentation]. 22nd Annual Scientific Sessions of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, Seattle, WA.
Levine, Glenn & Allen, Karen & Braun, Lynne & Christian, Hayley & Friedmann, Erika & Taubert, Kathryn & Thomas, Sue & Wells, Deborah & Lange, Richard. (2013). Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 127(23), 2353–2363. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1.
Marshall-Pescini, S., Schaebs, F., Gaugg, A., Meinert, A., Deschner, T., & Range, F. (2019). The Role of Oxytocin in the Dog–Owner Relationship. Animals, 9(10), 792. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9100792
Powell, L., Edwards, K. M., McGreevy, P., Bauman, A., Podberscek, A., Neilly, B., Sherrington, C., & Stamatakis, E. (2019). Companion dog acquisition and mental well-being: a community-based three-arm controlled study. BMC Public Health, 19(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-7770-5
Zasloff, R. L., & Kidd, A. H. (1994). Loneliness and Pet Ownership among Single Women. Psychological Reports, 75(2), 747–752. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1918.104.22.1687