By Dr. Shauna Summers
Research on the Human Companion Animal Bond (HCAB) has shown that people who have pets tend to reap a multitude of rewards – fewer trips to the doctor, fewer sick days, more social connections, less depression and anxiety, and a greater ability to handle stress. In recent years, some organizations have begun to certify Therapy Animals that visit places such as nursing homes and hospitals to provide some TLC and unconditional love to those recovering from illness or experiencing depression. In addition, Emotional Support Animals have begun to be recognized as a type of service animal for individuals who have been diagnosed with an emotional/mental disability. Here are just some of the multitude of benefits of having a pet.
Who doesn’t appreciate unconditional love? Pets don’t care what you do for a living, what kind of car you drive, or what your credit limit is – they just love spending time with you. Pets don’t judge, they keep secrets well, and they don’t hold grudges. Pets bond with their guardians and caregivers, and even simple tasks like brushing fur/hair or cleaning a cage can strengthen the connection you have with your pet. Research indicates that when a guardian interacts with her/his pet, several helpful chemicals are released in the brain. Oxytocin (the love hormone) helps strengthen the bond between pet and human, and serotonin and dopamine help reduce/prevent depression. Pets teach us about love, forgiveness, loyalty, joy, and so much more. They allow us to be ourselves – playful, silly, open, and real.
People love talking about their pets, and pets are wonderful conversation starters. Whether you are at the pet store, veterinarian’s office, dog park, or in your own home, engaging in a conversation with others about pets can be an entertaining and connective experience. Pets also encourage socialization of their humans through obedience classes, pet first aid trainings, common interest groups, charity events, pet expos, and many other venues.
Many pets are eager to please, and all animals are capable of learning. Are you up for a challenge? Teach Fluffy or Polly a new trick! It’s even possible to teach a betta fish to jump for food! Do you have a dog with endless energy? Try taking her to an agility class or let her try her paw at dock jumping! These activities provide exercise and mental stimulation for you both. Pets also teach us about mindfulness. They don’t worry about the past or the future – they live in the moment and encourage us to do so, too.
Caring for pets provides a sense of responsibility and helps establish a routine. These can be valuable for combating depression and other mental health problems. Having a sense of purpose can bring more meaning to life, and caring for a pet can lead to a greater sense of fulfillment. Knowing that your pet is waiting for you at the end of a long day can bring a glimpse of hope and pleasure during periods of depression.
All pets need exercise, and some require their guardian’s participation. You may grumble about having to bundle up and take Fido for a walk around the block in the middle of January, but both of you will be better off for it! Research has shown that when people interact with pets, they experience reductions in blood pressure, stress hormones, and heart rate. Many dogs would love to join their humans on outdoorsy adventures – hiking, boating, running, camping, biking, and even surfing and stand up paddleboarding! Some cats and birds are able to safely enjoy activities such as hiking, as well. If possible, find a physical activity you and your best pal can (safely) enjoy together. Bonus points if you can find things to do together year-round!
Science has confirmed what pet guardians have known for decades – having a pet brings many positive things into their lives. Animals are increasingly being recognized for all the wonderful things they do naturally and all the amazing things they can be trained to do. Even if you are not able to have a pet of your own, you can benefit from a brief interaction with an animal. They are not the solution to mental health problems like depression, but having a pet can go a long way in helping prevent/mitigate the symptoms of depression.
Shauna E. Summers, Ph.D. is a psychologist at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI and in private practice at Karen Gieseke, Ph.D., and Associates in Middletown, RI. She specializes in Pet Assisted Therapy (PAT) with Alex the Therapy Dog and working with individuals who identify as LGBTQ.