They greet you when you arrive home from a long day at work.
They are always happy to see you and love you unconditionally.
They know how to make you smile, even on the darkest of days.
Animal companions add joy and comfort to our lives, and studies show that bonds between humans and pets provide therapeutic benefits.
A growing body of research documents the value of this bond in child development, elderly care, mental illness, physical impairment, dementia, abuse and trauma recovery, and the rehabilitation of incarcerated youth and adults.
Dr. Froma Walsh has extensively researched the significance of bonds and relationships, and has examined how a bond with a pet can strengthen human resilience through times of crisis, persistent adversity, and disruptive transitions, such as relocation, divorce, widowhood, and adoption.
“The powerful meaning and significance of companion animals is underestimated,” says Dr. Walsh.
Pets can improve the mental health of everyone, not just those facing challenges.
Psychologists at Miami University and Saint Louis University conducted three experiments to examine the potential benefits of pet ownership among what they called everyday people. The results of the study were reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions,” said lead researcher Allen R. McConnell, PhD, of Miami University in Ohio. “Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extroverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”
The researchers said, “The present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support. Whereas past work has focused primarily on pet owners facing significant health challenges…the present study establishes that there are many positive consequences for everyday people who own pets.”
For those who suffer from depression, pets can help by providing uncomplicated love and companionship. Animal companions provide us with a sense of responsibility and show us that we are capable. And, pets – especially dogs – encourage us to get off the couch. Fido can’t walk himself, after all. Those regular walks also provide opportunities for socialization with other humans, as pets are natural icebreakers. Getting outside for fresh air and sunshine can also help reduce or eliminate stress and depression. Nature is calming, and the sun helps your body produce Vitamin D, which has been shown to help improve mood.
Research has found that owning a dog can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and boost levels of feel-good chemicals in the brain. One study of Chinese women found that dog owners exercised more often, slept better, reported better fitness levels and fewer sick days, and saw their doctors less often than people without dogs.
Humans need touch, and petting or grooming your pet can be comforting not only to your furry companion, but to you. When you connect with your pet, oxytocin, the hormone related to stress and anxiety relief, is released, helping to reduce blood pressure and lower cortisol levels.
And benefits aren’t limited to pets with hair or fur: studies indicate that merely watching fish swim lowers blood pressure and muscle tension.
Caring for a pet can work wonders for children with ADHD. Taking charge of the jobs on a pet care schedule, such as feeding, walking and bathing, helps a child learn to plan and be responsible.
Walking a dog or playing with a kitten can help children burn up some of that extra energy, which can help make them more relaxed and calm at night. And, exercise increases oxygen-filled blood flow to the brain, increasing the ability to concentrate.
Children with ADHD are used to their parents trying to calm them down or reprimanding them. A pet is a great listener and will not criticize a child for having too much energy. This unconditional love can boost a child’s self-esteem.
If you can’t handle the responsibility of a pet or are unable to have one due to your living arrangements, volunteering (which is good for mental health in itself) at an animal shelter is a win-win option.