I recently adopted Emmie, a tuxedo cat with emerald eyes. Gentle and playful, she loves having her head scratched, hates getting picked up, and is fascinated by the shower. She’s always ready to leap after her favorite teaser toy, pounce on my shoulders, and rip up my couch.
I was never a cat person, but on a whim, I decided to visit a local pet adoption center. Hoping to find a little companion, I was open to adopting a cat as a practical option for my work schedule and living space. Emmie was the first cat I met, and I fell in love immediately.
After the initial chaos of adjusting to a new home, Emmie and I now get each other. She greets me with meows when I come home from work, waits patiently for playtime, and snuggles up in my bed at night. Soon, I realized that I was happier and more relaxed with her around.
As a pretty anxious person, I often bring the stress and worries of my workday home with me. But Emmie’s company helps get me out of my head and adds more liveliness to my daily life. This furry little creature with white whiskers is unknowingly helping my mental health.
I’m sure anyone who has a pet can relate, whether you care for a dog, cat, rabbit, parakeet, or other beloved pet. These furry and feathered friends bring so much joy! Curious about the connection between pets and mental health, I began to research it—here’s what I found.
Affection From (and For) a Pet Calms Your Mind
Simply petting, stroking, or spending time with your pet helps ease stress. Your pet’s affection for you—licking, snuggling, lap-sitting, rubbing, nipping, pecking—is also soothing. Interacting with an adored animal can bring you out of an anxious mindset. Dogs and cats in particular share the human instinct to form a bond with their owners through physical connection.
Physician Dr. Kristen Fuller explains, “Hugging a dog or cat releases oxytocin and dopamine, hormones that reduce stress, lower blood pressure and heart rates, and increase happiness. . . . Touch can inhibit certain regions of the brain from responding to threat cues that would normally produce fear.” So besides stopping stress, a pet’s affection can also fight off fear.
Pet Companionship Decreases Loneliness and Depression
Pets are constant companions. They’re always there to greet you when you come home with a chirp, meow, bark, or bleat. Their unconditional love is affirming and lightens depressed thoughts and lonely feelings. Being a pet owner also adds another sense of purpose to your life, with a living thing depending on you for attention, love, food, and safety every day.
Research by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) found that 74 percent of pet owners experienced improved mental health through pet ownership. And 75 percent shared that they saw the mental health of a family member or friend improve through pet ownership. So your pet’s consistent companionship and reliance on you keep away dark moods.
Pet therapy is often used to treat depression. The same brain chemicals that calm you down also improve your mood and motivation, letting you live in the moment. Psychiatrist Reshmi Saranga M.D. says that, “So many mental health issues are focused on past events or worrying about the future, but playing with our dogs and cats keeps us grounded in what is going on right now.”
Pet Care Helps You Keep Up Responsible Routines
You can’t be lazy when it comes to pet care! You wouldn’t leave the front door open with a speedy toddler, and you definitely shouldn’t with a perky puppy. Caring for a pet forces you into responsible routines like daily walks or runs, multiple feedings, litter changes, vet visits, and hygiene upkeep. And of course, some pets need lots of training in good behavior.
Outdoor pets like dogs help you stay active through daily exercise. Walking or running a dog, playing fetch, and visiting a dog park are all great ways to help you get outside, too. As Dr. Jeff Nalin explains, “Taking care of a pet will instill a sense of responsibility. Because animals are dependent on us, we will take the necessary steps to satisfy their needs.”
Cute Animals and Pets Attract Friendly Attention
How many times have you stopped to pet or ooh and ah over a stranger’s pet? Whether it was on the street, in the grocery store, or at a cafe, you probably interacted with the owner, too: Aw! How old is your cat? What breed is she? Did you adopt her? Cute animals bring people together over shared admiration, starting friendly conversations and even friendships.
The HABRI study shows that 40 percent of pet owners receive social and emotional support from people they met through their pet. They’re also much more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners. “Animals are wonderful icebreakers, so they can be particularly useful in therapy with depressed patients who tend to withdraw socially,” Dr. Nalin told me.
Now that you know the many ways pets support our mental health, you have even more reasons to get one! Animals can bring out the best in us, making us more even-keeled, responsible, and social. Pet ownership certainly comes with challenges, but the joy, energy, affection, and support they give us make up for any mishap or mischief.