Our pets love us unconditionally and are always there for us. We even sense that they are aware when we’re feeling down or upset. Talking to our pets and confiding in them means that they won´t be judging us – just helping us to vocalise what is on our minds. Even though you might feel grumpy sometimes and think you like quiet, humans are social animals. It’s important for our physical and mental health to have contact with other people – and our four-legged friends are a brilliant way to get you talking. Pets are brilliant icebreakers and help others build trust in you.
Pets are a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation, often helping us without us even realising it. In particular, the regular exercise from walking a dog can be beneficial for people suffering with depression. Pets also offer company and someone to share the day with, which is incredibly valuable for pet-owners who experience loneliness, particularly in later life.
It’s not just that pets help you build a wider social network – many people have pets as companions. They make you happy, give you a routine and are great company – all of which adds to your quality of life and boosts your everyday mental health. Having a friendly face at home isn’t just nice-to-have – it can help you stave off common mental health problems caused at least in some part by loneliness.
Stroking or playing with your cat or dog reduces stress-related hormones, even after just 5 minutes of interaction. In fact, playing with your pet raises our levels of serotonin and dopamine; ‘happiness hormones’ – these hormones calm and relax the nervous system so when we smile, laugh or chat with our pets, this helps stimulate their release.
Research has shown that 74% of pet owners say that owning a pet has improved their mental health. Studies show that human-animal interaction increases oxytocin levels in the brain, resulting in a sense of calm, comfort and focus. Not only that, but a study of over 600 cat owners by Cats Protection and the Mental Health Foundation found that 87% felt owning a cat had a positive impact on their wellbeing, while 76% said they could better cope with life thanks to the company of their pet.
As well as protecting your mental wellbeing, pets can also help you manage long-term mental health problems. Pets are a valuable source of support for those managing long-term conditions, providing a welcome distraction from symptoms or upsetting experiences and lots of encouragement. As with the above, pets also give people some much-needed companionship and support especially where other relationships might be limited or strained.
Social isolation is a huge health problem, particularly for the elderly. In fact, social isolation can increase your chances of dying early. So, what may seem like a trivial chat over the garden wall when looking for your cat or in the park when walking your dog, can be hugely significant for your mental and physical health.
Many care homes have resident pets or receive regular visits from therapy animals. This helps to create a calmer, more homely environment for residents and dog assisted therapy has been shown to improve mood, and quality of life in people with dementia.