My young daughter struggles with anxiety. During a recent episode of panic I was struggling to help her calm her racing mind when my sixty-five-pound Pit Bull mix came to check on her, and it brought me a moment of clarity.
“You know,” I said to her, “scientists found that petting your dog can help you calm down when you’re upset.” She didn’t hesitate to put her hand on his neck and stroke him. In a few moments, the tears slowed and her breathing improved. She sat there petting him slowly, and in a matter of minutes it was almost as if nothing had happened. Since her worries tend to pop back up at bedtime, I asked if we could move the dog’s bed into her room. He’s slept by her side every night, and we’ve had no bedtime struggles since.
Our pets provide us with so many avenues to improve our mental health beyond just a comforting presence. Yes, it’s true that petting a dog can release oxytocin and lower your blood pressure (even more than talking to another human according to this study). You might be surprised at some of the other science-supported ways your pet helps your well being.
Walking Your Dog
Multiple studies have shown that dog owners are less depressed than those without dogs. Most dog parents, a whopping 87%, exercise the recommended 150 minutes per week. Mental health benefits, including reduced anxiety and depression, as well as physical health benefits follow with each step.
You don’t need to make dog walking an epic journey. Just a quick 10 minutes around the block, stopping at a few trees or fire hydrants along the way, can make huge improvements and get the ball rolling for increased endurance later on.
If walking a dog isn’t an option, just playing with a pet in the home releases serotonin and dopamine to help your mood. If pet ownership isn’t a reality for you right now, consider volunteering to groom cats or walk dogs at your local shelter where you’ll get these benefits, help adoptable animals, and even build a routine for yourself.
Building Routine & Building Relationships
Routine is important. Some pet parents report that their walking routine helped their overall well being, while others said the walk helped them feel more connected to their neighbors. The sense of purpose that comes with routinely feeding, grooming, and attending to your pet can help you find meaning and joy in life when it can otherwise be a struggle.
If you aren’t up to taking care of yourself, now might not be the right time for pet ownership. But if you think you might have an easier time getting out of bed in the morning if a pet needed cared for regularly, a pet might help you. Fostering could be a good short-term stepping stone into pet ownership. The companionship that comes with a pet has been well-documented to decrease the symptoms of depression and loneliness and increase the quality and length of life.
Pets Provide Reassurance
I feel safer and calmer when my dog is around. On those rare days when I’m home alone without him, I’m more aware of every noise I hear. When our pets are home and sleeping quietly, we can’t help but feel more secure and at ease. This sense of reassurance is not limited to watchdogs. Experiencing the love of a pet helps children and adults build their self-confidence. Whether a child is reading to a dog, snuggling with them, or teaching them tricks, the dog-human bond is free of any judgement, criticism, or negativity, and can even lead to increased social skills with other people.
One last bit of uplifting news: Most studies on the mental health benefits of companion animals find that animals also benefit from the same increased levels of oxytocin and dopamine that we do when we spend time with them. Your dog doesn’t just look at you like they love you. They really do love you. Knowing that the mental health benefits of pet ownership are reciprocal makes me happier just thinking about it.