How Pets Impact Our Mental Health | HABRI

First published on PetMD May 2nd, 2024

You’ve likely heard that pets can boost your mental and physical well-being, but did you know there’s a growing body of scientific evidence to support this? The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) is dedicated to exploring this connection.

Here’s one trend being driven by this scientific research: Pets are shedding their “just nice to have” label and instead being recognized as integral to our overall health, especially mental health. More than 1 in 5 U.S. pet owners surveyed have had a pet recommended by a doctor or therapist, and they are increasingly welcomed in the places we livework, and play. It’s a pet revolution—and for good reason.

How Pets Help Shape Our Mental and Physical Well-Being

Doctors are recommending more time with pets, small pets are being incorporated into school curriculums, and even workplaces like Chewy are embracing furry coworkers. Why the shift? Here are four good reasons, according to research.

Pets Reduce Feelings of Loneliness

The COVID-19 pandemic undeniably heightened feelings of isolation and loneliness. But the truth is, loneliness was a social epidemic even before the pandemic, and it continues to be—1 in 5 Americans say they feel a lack of deep connection and understanding among others.

When HABRI and Mars Petcare asked pet parents nationwide what they do when they feel lonely, 80% said they turn to their pets for comfort. Pets offer not just unconditional love, but also a sense of purpose in caring for another being. Additionally, over half (54%) of the respondents said their pets help them connect with others in the community, which fosters a sense of belonging.

Pets Foster Connection and Community

For many animal-lovers, pets are social catalysts. This isn’t just anecdotal. A study across cities in the United States and Australia found a connection between pet ownership and stronger social bonds in communities.

As expected, dog parents reported the most social interaction, but 27% of people with other pets said they met their neighbors through their furry, scaled, or feathery companions. How did this happen? People chatted about their pets over fences, and sometimes these conversations even sparked social gatherings, especially when neighborhood children were eager to meet a new kind of pet.

Pets Encourage Mindfulness and Focus

One way we can all be more mindful is by taking note of the small things around us, and pets are good practice. Take cats, for example. A cat’s body language might be confusing at first, but by paying close attention, we can learn to understand them better, like that thrashing tail, which usually means annoyance or anger.

Moreover, one study found that having pets in the classroom significantly increases social skills and academic reading competence and decreases hyperactivity. Meanwhile, parents said their children were more empathetic and caring at home.

Pets Encourage Healthy Habits, Beyond Physical Exercise

Researchers say the health benefits of pets go far beyond taking a dog for daily walks—positive interactions with pets trigger the release of oxytocin, endorphins, and prolactin (a nurturing hormone) in humans, while stress hormones (cortisol) go down. And there’s more good news: These positive chemical changes are happening in your pet too!

What does this mean for pet parents beyond feeling warm and fuzzy around pets? For one, research from the University of Maryland shows that pets can improve heart health by reducing stress and blood pressure. People had a better chance of recovering from a heart attack if they had the company of a feline companion than those who didn’t.

Meanwhile, another study explored the impact of fishkeeping on juvenile diabetes, because cats and dogs aren’t the only pets helping to keep us healthy. They found that caring for fish encourages children to link their own self-care with the health of their pets—feeding the fish served as an effective reminder to check their blood sugar levels or take medication.

A similar result was observed in Alzheimer’s patients. When Alzheimer patients ate their meals in a room with a fish tank, they ate more, were less likely to require supplemental nutrition, and even exhibited fewer behavioral issues associated with sundown syndrome.

Pets Support Resilience and Recovery

Research has found that pets can provide benefits over time to people with a diagnosis of a long-term mental health challenge. Pets offered emotional and social support, helping them develop a sense of security, routine, and stability in times of need.

Psychiatric service dogs have been shown to be beneficial for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These specially trained companions provide environmental awareness, emotional calming, and intervention during panic attacks or nightmares. Studies show that veterans paired with service dogs experience improved sleep, stronger family connections, smoother reintegration into communities, and even higher employment rates.

The therapeutic power of pets extends to children as well. Mental health providers are finding that pets are particularly effective at helping children open up to talk about their feelings.

In response to the growing need for therapy pets, the Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals (AAAIP) emerged just two years ago. This organization provides training and certification for professionals like school counselors and psychologists, allowing them to integrate pets into their therapy practices.

A Pet Revolution

With a growing body of evidence showing that pets are essential for our mental health, it is even more important than ever to make sure that they get all the care that they need. While a prescription isn’t necessary to reap the benefits of pet companionship, it’s clear that the better we care for our pets, the better they care for us in return.