Pets to improve mental health

If you needed an excuse for having a pet, we can’t think of a better one than this: pets are important for mental health. 


Research says that emotional support from a human-animal relationship can reduce the perception of stressful events in our lives, which can provide us with coping strategies and help prevent us from spiralling into anxiety-related illness. 


In addition, pets help you maintain a healthy lifestyle that can support your mental wellbeing. From providing structure and purpose to your day – which can help your anxiety just as much as theirs – to keeping active, there are plenty of ways they can help.


The mood-boosting benefits of pets


Studies have shown that people who own pets are less likely to suffer from depression. They also have lower blood pressure when under stress, are calmer and more relaxed, and have lower indicators of heart disease. 


We also know from research that dog owners are far more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements. In fact, in one study by Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction found that public housing residents who walked therapy dogs for up to 20 minutes five days a week lost an average of 6.5kg in a year without changing their diets. When we shed some unwanted weight or start to see some muscle definition or toning, we often start to feel better about ourselves and the confidence boost can help us continue to exercise and help us socialise. 


People who adopt rescue pets from shelters can feel more fulfilled from knowing that they’ve provided a home to a pet that may otherwise not have found one, or provided a better home than the one they came from. Working to overcome barriers and create a bond with a rescue animal can also give you immense pride and happiness. 


Friends… with (health) benefits


The bond you build with a pet is unconditional. And it can bring more love into your life. You don’t have to answer to them when your hair is overdue for a wash and you don’t have to worry about being judged for your meal choices. All they want is your company and sometimes that companionship is all you need when you’re not feeling up for socialising with people. While we all wish our pets could talk back, their calming influence and in many cases, silence, can help take our mind off things.


A reason to stay active


Going for a walk by yourself might make you feel a little uncomfortable. Having a pet – in this case, a dog – gives you a reason to go, which can help motivate you. If you suffer from social anxiety, a dog can help make you feel protected. They give you the confidence boost you need to ease into a conversation or say a quick hello to passersby.

The research done on pets and children’s mental health is clear. Children who grow up with a pet are more likely to feel more secure and be active as adults. Exercise is helpful for your wellbeing just as much as it is for your pet’s. Exercise can help people experiencing mild to moderate depression, anxiety and other mood disorders – such as Bipolar, PTSD, SAD and more – get back on their feet and feel better. At Mood Active, we offer affordable exercise programs with the extra outreach, coaching support and supervision needed for those who are struggling with their motivation – what you learn through Mood Active, you can take into all aspects of your life.  


Companions give you purpose


Having purpose and routine in your day is an important way you can manage mood conditions such as depression and anxiety. Research tells us that pet care and self-care are linked. When it comes to your wellbeing, it’s easy to cut corners when you live alone. Having the responsibility of a pet to look after gives you a reason to do more and be better. Your pet will come to expect dinner at around the same time each day and they will sleep at around the same time each day. While you might not sleep as much as your pet does, you can spend some time cuddling and petting them, which can provide sensory relief, making you feel more relaxed while growing the bond with your pet even further. 


The best pets for mental health


At Mood Active, many of our participants and volunteers with lived experience have enjoyed the mood-bosting benefits of having a pet in their lives – particularly when paired with a mental health exercise program that provides the extra supervision, support and coaching needed to thrive.


Any pet can help ease feelings of loneliness that contribute to a downward turn in someone’s mental wellbeing. While cats and rabbits are recognised in the scientific community as providing good companion therapy for people struggling with their mental wellbeing, dogs are largely acknowledged as the best emotional support animal for people with depression and anxiety. While they help alleviate our worries and burdens, the additional benefits that come from having to exercise and socialise a dog can boost your emotional and physical wellbeing. 


Domestic animals have evolved over time to become attuned to our emotions and behaviours. However dogs can even learn commands from words we use and understand our tone of voice and body language. They can also figure out your emotional state by looking at your eyes and sensing your energy. They are sensitive and can adapt their behaviour to give you the form of social support they think you need.


If having a dog sounds like a big commitment, start with something more low maintenance. Watching fish swim in a fish tank or pond is believed to have a calming effect on us.


Cover Photo by Pauline Loroy on Unsplash