If you own a pet, I’m willing to bet that you’re less stressed than your non-pet-owning friends. In fact, there’s quite a bit of research and studies on how owning – or just petting – an animal can significantly decrease your stress levels, as well as all the negative health effects that come from being too stressed out.
I grew up with animals. My family had dogs (one at a time and the longest-lived were boxers), a cat, horses, chickens, fish, birds (at times), guinea pigs, rabbits, and even a hamster. My favorites among these were the dogs and the cat because they were the ones I was around the most.
I remember spending a lot of time with the dog, just petting her, hugging her, and keeping her close. I likely didn’t consciously realize it at the time, but petting those puppers helped with how I felt. The husband and I have a cat now, and I could immediately see the positive impact she’s had on our lives. We’re laughing more, smiling more, and I feel less wound up after having pet her.
Sometimes she acts like a dog and it’s so cute.
I’m feeling less stressed out just writing this!
I mentioned in my post on keeping your sanity in college that if there’s an animal shelter nearby, go volunteer there! The schools that put on those “Pet the Stress Away” events know what’s up. During dead week and finals week, what you really need is fifteen minutes petting a dog.
I envy those workplaces that regularly bring in animals for the workers to pet.
So, now you know a little about my history with animals, and maybe you have your own pets right now too – or are thinking about getting one.
But what’s the science behind petting animals that actually makes a difference?
It has to be living; it can’t be a toy
In terms of stress relief and benefits to mental health, it actually doesn’t matter what kind of animal you’re caring for or petting or spending time with – what matters is if it’s a living animal.
A study was done in which 58 people were put into a stressful situation – the same room as a tarantula (YIKES), which they might be asked to hold – and split into groups. The groups that interacted with or petted a live animal (in this case a rabbit or turtle) experienced lower stress levels than those petting a toy or nothing at all. The study noted that the effects couldn’t be attributed directly to the petting, but that having a live animal made the difference.
Pets can increase the effectiveness of medication
In another study, pet ownership seemed to increase the effectiveness of medication on hypertensive adults. The medication by itself didn’t match the added benefit of owning a pet.
This means that taking your anxiety or depression medications by themselves won’t bring you as much of a benefit as they would if you were also a pet owner. If you don’t own any pets, though, consider volunteering at an animal shelter!
Pets can influence longevity after traumatic events
Traumatic events induce a heavy amount of stress on the body – specifically heart attacks.
If you have a heart attack, having a pet will increase your likelihood of survival at least a year following. “Dog owners […] are significantly less likely to die within 1 year than those who did not own dogs.” (Reference 1)
I’d suspect that this longevity benefit isn’t limited to just heart-attack victims; sufferers of PTSD can utilize therapy dogs to help ground them and bring them out of attacks.
Animals won’t judge you
Children are more likely to open up to a dog than to a human therapist. They can talk to the dog all they like, and the dog isn’t going to talk back. It gives them a measure of control over the situation, enabling healthy expression of thoughts and feelings without feeling judged by an adult.
Petting dogs releases “feel-good” hormones
Spending just fifteen minutes petting a dog releases serotonin: “levels of serotonin, a hormone in humans that helps fight depression, rise dramatically after interaction with live animals, specifically dogs.” (University of Missouri-Columbia study)
This is good news for anyone who’s depressed AND a dog lover! However, cat lovers experience similar benefits according to the same study.
All of these reasons and more are why more and more people are registering their pets as emotional support animals. While ESAs do not get the same protection as service animals, they are still a highly beneficial resource for those who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental or other health issues.
Question for you!
What about you? Do you have a pet you can rely on to help improve your stress levels and overall health? Have you noticed feeling better mentally after spending time with your pet (or any animal)? Let me know in the comments!
1 Erika Friedmann, Sue A. Thomas, Pet ownership, social support, and one-year survival after acute myocardial infarction in the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST), The American Journal of Cardiology, Volume 76, Issue 17, 1995, Pages 1213-1217, ISSN 0002-9149, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9149(99)80343-9. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0002914999803439)