Did you know that 74% of pet owners credit their animal companions with improving their mental health? Pets are increasingly used in therapy to help those with mental health problems, and they play an important role in boosting our morale in day to day life. If you’ve been struggling to deal with anxiety, depression or related issues, you might find that spending more time with a pet gives you a real boost.
The science of bonding with pets
From a chemical point of view, our relationships with animals works the same way as our relationships with humans: they are powered by oxytocin. This potent hormone is found in its highest concentration in the mothers of new babies, but it also plays an ongoing role in familial bonding and romantic love. The most popular types of pet all have certain features that resemble those of human babies, triggering oxytocin production, such as proportionately large heads and wide eyes. Domestic cats have even evolved vocal utterances (unknown in their wild relatives) that have this effect. This is why it’s so easy to fall for them – and they, smelling the hormonal changes in us, increase their trust and affection in return. We’re naturally social animals and having this sense of mutual trust and support is an important part of what keeps us feeling healthy.
Promoting a healthier lifestyle
When you have a pet, you have a responsibility. Many people with poor mental health find it easier to get up and make things happen when somebody else depends on them than when the only needs they have to worry about are their own. Dogs who need you to talk them are particularly helpful, because physical exercise helps your body to process stress hormones and makes you feel better – it will also help you to get a better night’s sleep. Any kind of active play with a pet helps with this to some degree. Just having a routine to your day (including at the weekends) means that your metabolism will function more healthily. Having a pet that benefits from fresh vegetables, such as a rabbit or guinea pig, can help to get you eating more healthily yourself.
Learning to live in the moment
If you’ve been concerned about how to deal with anxiety, you may find that one of your problems is a constant worry about things that have happened in the past or might happen in the future, making it impossible to relax in the here and now. To most animals, worries like this are completely alien. Their whole lives are focused on the present, and the more time you spend with one, the easier you’ll find it to slip into that way of thinking. It’s hard to stay focused on your worries when somebody is barking at you to throw a stick or rolling over on the carpet at your feet, hoping for scratches. As a rule, pets know how to have fun and they’ll help you rediscover the pleasure of simple things. We can see this chemically as serotonin and dopamine levels increase during play.
Isolation is a common contributor to mental illness, and mental illness can worsen isolation. Sometimes, even if friends and family members remain nearby, it can be difficult to find anyone to talk to who will really pay attention – but pets will. While they may not understand the precise meaning of your words, they will grasp their emotional meaning – often better than humans do. What’s more, stroking pets has been shown to result in lower blood pressure and a deep feeling of calm.
Having an animal companion can also make it easier to form new connections with other people. It means you’ll always have a safe subject to talk about, and if it gets you out and about, that’s a great way to meet people. It’s easier to be confident with new people when your pet is confident and enthusiastic about making friends.
We live in a society that tends to downplay relationships between humans and animals and dismiss their real value. Science, however, tells us clearly that that attitude is wrong. When you come home feeling shattered after a stressful day and a purring cat winds round your legs or a dog jumps up at you, wagging its tail, you’ll know as much instinctively. Pets play a vitally important role in our lives, and when we’re feeling overwhelmed by life, their patience and affection can help us turn the corner.