7 Scientific Ways Your Pet Is Helping Your Mental Health

Here's how your pet is surreptitiously making you happier.

Kacie Goff Contributor
Kacie is a contributor to CNET.
Kacie Goff
6 min read
Woman looking at dog while petting them.
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If you're a pet owner, you probably have your own anecdotal evidence here. You get home after a long day and sit down with your furry friend. Suddenly, the stress or sadness melts off you. 

There's something to this. Pets can deliver significant benefits for our mental health. And it's not just trained service animals -- it's everyday household pets, too. They give us the unconditional love we all crave. In turn, their companionship delivers some serious psychological benefits. Specifically, though, you might wonder: How can pets help mental health? We'll explore the biggest measurable perks here. 

Not in a position to get a pet right now? No worries. If you have anxiety, here are ways to relieve anxiety without medication. You might also try a weighted stuffed animal, or start busting some anxiety myths

Here's how your pet is benefitting your mental health 

If you've been wondering how to improve mental health, you may want to consider a furry friend. 

First, though, what is mental health? To sum it up, it's our emotional and psychological well-being. And why is mental health important? Because mental health matters just as much as physical health. When you're dealing with a mental health challenge, life is harder just like it is when you're physically sick.

But as a way to improve your mental well-being, in addition to working to develop a treatment plan with a therapist, a pet could deliver a significant measure of comfort.

How can pets help mental health? In these specific ways:

Decreasing stress and anxiety 

Stress might feel intangible, but we can measure it with things like cortisol (a stress hormone) and blood pressure levels. When looking at key stress-indicating metrics, studies show that spending time with a pet can deliver stress-relieving improvement. 

Most people deal with stress once in a while. But persistent stress and a pervasive sense of worry could indicate that you're living with anxiety. This isn't just feeling anxious sometimes; it's an umbrella term for a group of diagnosable mental health disorders. 

If you're living with an anxiety disorder, a pet could help you find some relief.

In a similar vein, people with anxiety might suffer from anxiety attacks (commonly called panic attacks). If that's you, you might want to consider a dog or a cat. Some specifically trained service animals can provide companionship to help you get through the attack. 

Read more: What to Know About Anxiety, Signs to be Aware of and How to Cope

Reducing feelings of depression and loneliness 

Loneliness can be one of the biggest contributors to mental health challenges. In fact, it's an increasingly pressing issue in the US. 

But lots of people find that bringing a pet into your home can help. The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute recently conducted a study with Mars Petcare, the pet product giant. They found that 85% of respondents agreed that interacting with a pet can reduce feelings of loneliness. 

And if you're feeling lonely, it's important to take action. Prolonged loneliness can contribute to the development of depression. 

This is more than just feeling sad. Major depressive disorder is a diagnosable, treatable mental illness. While you should work with a therapist to develop a care plan for yourself, studies show that pets -- and dogs in particular -- can help to moderate the symptoms of depression. 

Woman lying on the couch hugging and kissing her dog.
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Reducing symptoms of PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder causes a broad range of mental health challenges, from unwanted flashbacks to anxiety and depression symptoms. After the traumatic event, getting back to "normal" can feel almost impossible.

But while it can be a hard thing to realize, you don't have to walk this road alone. Pets can make a big difference. Bonding with an animal can help to ease your symptoms, so much so that the US Department of Veteran Affairs specifically suggests dog ownership as a way to see emotional benefits for people with PTSD. 

Boosting confidence 

According a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, when compared to kids without animals, children who had pets generally had:

  • Improved self-esteem
  • Less loneliness 
  • Better social skills

However, this isn't true only for children. Among other notable benefits, a study jointly conducted by the University of Miami and Saint Louis University found that pet owners had boosted self-esteem compared to non-pet owners. They were also more physically fit. There's something about all of that unconditional love that can really help you feel yourself. 

Helping you meet people 

The mental health benefits of a pet don't stop with you. That same Miami University and Saint Louis University study also found that pet owners tended to be:

  • More extraverted
  • Less fearful and preoccupied
  • Less lonely

If that doesn't sound like a good combination for building a social life, we don't know what does. When you own a pet, you might have a greater inclination to meet people and maintain relationships.

Beyond that, if you get a pet you can walk, like a dog, you'll open up a whole new social circle. You might be surprised how many people will stop you on the street to ask to meet your dog. And dog parks can be a great place to strike up a conversation with someone who has common interests; namely, your furry family members. 

Adding structure and routine 

Owning a pet means you have someone relying on you. Even in the depths of a depressive episode or a particularly anxiety-ridden season, you still need to feed your pet and give them attention. 

Mental health challenges can make it easy to spiral, making symptoms progressively worse. Your pet gives you an opportunity to shift your focus outside yourself. When you're down, it can be easy to think: Why is mental health important? You might be tempted to just let yourself get progressively worse. 

Then you see your pet. And you have a tangible reminder that you've got something to live for. Caring for their needs can build structure and routine into your life, which can help with bipolar disorder and depression. 

Helping us form healthy habits 

Speaking of routine, your pet could be a big help in developing healthy habits. Dogs, in particular, can force you to:

  • Get up in the morning
  • Spend time outdoors
  • Walk at least a little bit each day

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that the health benefits of pet ownership can extend to healthier blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels (that last one measures the amount of fat in your blood). 

What are service and emotional support animals? 

Close up of service dog.
24K-Production/Getty Images

If you've been wondering how to improve mental health for yourself or someone you love, a pet could be a great place to start, particularly when paired with treatment like therapy. You can get any of the benefits we just outlined by adopting a pet.

If your mental illness seriously impacts your life, you might want to consider a service or emotional support animal

As defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, a service animal is a dog that is specifically trained to help an individual with their disability. That can include a mental disability. You can bring an ADA-compliant service dog into any business in the country. That said, getting a trained service dog requires a fair bit of research and work, and comes with some costs.

If that sounds overwhelming, you may want to look into ESAs. These pets don't require any specific training and they're covered by the Fair Housing Act. In fact, under that Act, they're not considered pets. Instead, they're assistance animals. And that means you can live with them even in housing that has a no-pet policy. To get your pet certified as an ESA, you need to get an ESA letter from a mental health professional. 

The bottom line 

Why is mental health important? Because you deserve to feel good as much as possible. And pets can help you improve your mental health. The bond with your animal can ease mental illness symptoms, give you companionship and confidence and add a healthy level of structure to your days. 

Even if you can't adopt a pet right now, you can still get some quality animal time by dog walking, volunteering at a local shelter or fostering an animal. 

And if you want to learn more about how to improve mental health, we've got a few tips to get you started. Here's one you can implement right away: Limit your time on social media

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.