2020 was quite the year. It pushed us all to our emotional limits with stress, uncertainty, and health. Each day, we waited to see what would happen next in terms of COVID updates, political changes, and social justice initiatives. However, one thing that kept us grounded in these difficult times were our pets! As we stayed home, wondering what each day would bring, we had our furry friends to offer unconditional love and support.
Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and quarantine life is alleviating in many areas, this is a great time to reflect on just how much our pets do for us, especially when it comes to our mental health. Let’s take a look at all the ways our pets support minds, health, and well-being.
The Physiological Benefits of Pets
The blanket label of mental health engulfs all aspects of our lives. From work to home and back again, it impacts our emotional and physical needs in various ways. But coming home to a pet can significantly shift our day and our well-being in more ways than one. Did you know there are actual physiological benefits to having a pet at home?
- Stress Reducers: Being around animals has been scientifically proven to foster positive mental health. Research has shown that pets can lower blood pressure and heart rates which means our stress levels decrease. We’ve learned cats purr for various reasons, but one is to show a sense of calm which transfers to us when we hold them. Our pets physically make us feel better just by being around them!
- Medical Issues: While pets help our nervous systems relax, they are also helpful when it comes to other medical conditions such as seizures, migraines, and depression, along with supporting those with autism. These furry friends can be trained to help blind folks get around town and remind us to take our medications right on time.
- The Discipline of Ownership: The responsibility of owning a pet helps us create routines which can give pet owners purpose. It’s been shown that pets can help keep humans out of depression and keep them on task each day when it feels difficult to simply exist. Taking care of a pet gives the owner a sense of control they may not have in other areas of their life by daily feedings, walks, and playtime. According to a study performed by HABRI (Human Animal Bond Research Institute), “…the practical work involved in caring for a pet, such as feeding, was reported to be a pleasant distraction from mental health concerns.”
- A Sense of Safety: HABRI also found that “one area of support pets provided is ‘emotional work’, or the ability to alleviate worry and provide comfort. A common theme was that owners often describe their pet as intuitively knowing when they need support. In addition, pet owners reported that they could confide worries and secrets in their pets.” It’s important to feel safe at home, especially if we are processing things like a pandemic, trauma, or other big life stressors. Having a pet at home, especially if we live alone, provides humans with more than just a furry friend. The psychological connection to having another living creature in the home, especially one that provides unconditional love, can help the owner feel safe enough to remove the fight or flight response, lower cortisol, and genuinely relax, allowing them to move beyond basic needs into a safe space of healing and rejuvenation.
Not only do our pets help our bodies, but they help our minds rest and relax. Let’s take a look at some of the ways our pets impact our emotional health that lead to a happier and healthier life.
- Unconditional Love: People have a lot of feelings, but one of the best feelings we receive from our pets is love. Yes, our cats can be temperamental, and our pups may get upset if a stranger comes by, but deep down, they love to snuggle up and enjoy a good book or movie just as much as we do. Having consistent love in our lives from our pets is important to our hearts and our self-esteem.
- Combating Loneliness: Aristotle believed we are social creatures, and pets remind us of that truth! Especially during quarantine, a lot of us were locked down in our homes without the ability to see others. Our pets literally came to the rescue, ensuring we weren’t alone. Having someone else in the house can really change a person’s mood and confidence level that can negate negative coping strategies and behaviors.
- Loyal Companion: While the world is an ever-changing place, having a pet at home can be a grounding experience. Issues with family, friends, and significant others can shake up our emotional world, but pets transcend that flux. They are a constant in our lives who are always there to offer a pet, a cuddle, and a listening ear. This consistent loyalty can change the way we view ourselves and our reality.
- Distraction: Distraction can be seen as a negative coping mechanism, but we can’t sit in our sadness and struggles at all times, as this type of behavior negates the joy and relief needed to move past difficult moments. Pets can offer us a positive distraction that ultimately helps us cope and heal. Taking the dog for a walk, playing fetch, and dragging a mouse around the house for the kittens not only help us take time away from our stressors, but they get our bodies moving which can produce dopamine and serotonin, providing us physical joy.
This May, take some time during Mental Health Awareness Month to acknowledge just how much our pets do for us. These reciprocated relationships may be the most important of our lives.