By Tobi Millrood
he Coronavirus quarantine has dampened spirits for so many. Beyond the threat of testing positive
and experiencing human life loss among friends and family, the interruption of typical daily life has cast a seemingly long grey cloud on so many. While pets have always been an elixir to remedy feeling blue, one unmistakable conclusion from the pandemic experience has been the extraordinary mental health benefits that pets can bring.
What is it about pets that seem to have such a magical effect on mental health? Most of all, pets, particularly those that bring mirrored companionship, give us the much-needed feeling of unconditional love. Pets, particularly dogs and cats provide us with the simplicity of allowing us to be ourselves without the clouds of division and tribalism that creep into our daily lives these days. Your dog sees you and loves you without regard to your race, gender, zodiac sign, height or weight. It is true equal opportunity love. On top of that, because of the commitment of responsibility you make to a pet, it brings about the kinds of activity that will produce positive mental health: walks, fresh air, providing food and sustenance for another and an appreciation for your love that will immediately lift your spirits.
And this feel-good phenomenon with pets is not merely accidental. Researchers have found that social recognition plays a very important role in positive mental health. Simply put, social recognition is the process of identifying another being as someone important and significant to you. This bond forms between owner and pet—like a mother to a baby—that plays a crucial role in mental health. Especially for isolated people or those who live alone, a pet can be a real lifeline in this way.
Today, it is estimated that 80 million households own a pet. In a survey of pet owners, 98% consider their pet to be a family member, 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership, and 75% of pet owners reported a friend’s or family member’s mental health has improved from pet ownership. More than 30 years ago, some of the first research on pets and mental health was published. Specifically, the researchers measured what happens to the body when a person meets a friendly dog. The conclusions were remarkable—all the signs of reduced stress were found in the owners: blood pressure went down, heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed. In addition to lowering stress, studies have found that petting and playing with pets reduces stress-related hormones after just five minutes of playing with a pet. A study done by the CDC found that a pet dog can protect children from anxiety. And because pets make us feel needed, studies have shown that people feel less depressed when they have a pet to care for and feel needed. Recently, another set of researchers found that pet owners had better self-esteem, were more physically fit, less lonely, more conscientious and less preoccupied, more extroverted and less fearful.
The list of research that concludes the beneficial mental health effects of pets is long. Particularly in these challenging times during the pandemic, experiencing unconditional love is a much sought after emotion. These are the feelings pets will evoke. From seniors to children, the effects of pet ownership on positive mental health is undeniable. Thank you pets for rescuing us!