May is Mental Health Month. One in five Americans will have a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year, and one in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness. Today, people are facing a mental health crisis brought on by the pandemic, from the difficulties of being quarantined at home to experiencing job loss and economic uncertainty. In the face of these challenges, it is clear that pets can have a positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing. Scientific research has found that human-animal interaction (HAI) can help reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
The Physiology of the Human-Animal Bond
HAI has been shown to influence blood pressure, heart rate, and hormones correlated with well-being including oxytocin, b-endorphin, prolactin, phenylacetic acid and dopamine, all of which play a role in regulating mental health.
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide long known to promote maternal care in mammals. Oxytocin causes many physiological changes, including slowing heart rate and breathing, lowering blood pressure, inhibiting stress hormones, and creating a sense of calm. Research demonstrates that human-animal interaction increases oxytocin levels in the brain.
Beyond influencing physiological changes to the brain, interaction with animals provide people with a broad range of emotional and social support that can buffer stress and even promote resilience, or the ability to adapt and recover from adverse circumstances.
Multiple studies have measured the effect of HAI on stress. One study of pet owners in a high stress profession (stockbrokers) found that pet ownership provided the non-evaluative social support necessary to act as a buffer to stress. This non-evaluative social support has also been found to reduce stress in children whose families own pets.
In addition, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has also been found to buffer stress in difficult situations. A two-year, randomized controlled trial examined the effects of animal-assisted therapy on stress levels of university students classified as being at high risk of academic failure. Both immediately following interaction with a therapy dog and during a six-week follow-up, students expressed reduction in anxiety and an increase in confidence. After the six-week follow up, researchers also noted that students displayed increased problem-solving skills.
Providing Social Support
Companion animals can also reduce social isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is a growing public health epidemic, which profoundly affects mental health. Scientific research shows that the accepting nature of pets leads them to be ideal companions for children experiencing social isolation. Research also suggests that pets serve as a conduit for social capital and can lead to increased socialization through community engagement and more regular visits to the veterinarian, particularly beneficial for older adults living alone.
Managing Mental Illness
A common challenge for those with a long-term mental health condition or illness is the ability to manage and be engaged with everyday life. This general stability, referred to as ontological security, is defined as the sense of order and continuity derived from a person’s capacity to give meaning to themselves as well as maintain a positive view of the self, the world and the future. A study examining the role pets play in the social support networks of pet owners managing mental illness found that, over time, individuals developed routines with pets that contributed to emotional and social support. The study found that the act of caring for a pet was, itself, enough to form a calming routine, sense of control, and certainty to turn to in times of need. The study concluded that pets can be main sources of support for individuals managing long-term mental health conditions.
Mental Health Month
HABRI is proud to highlight the importance of mental health during Mental Health Month, and to directly support research into the mental health benefits of human-animal interaction.
If you are interested in learning more about the science behind the health benefits of the human-animal bond for mental health, please check out HABRI’s mental health research page.
For further information, please visit:
- HABRI Central: Mental Health and Wellness
- HABRI Central, HABRI’s online database of human-animal interaction resources, features key-word searchable resources on mental health.
- Facts and Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America
- Learn about the different types of anxiety and depression disorders and how they affect people worldwide.
- Mental Health Information | Mental Health America
- Learn about the signs, statistics, facts and more about mental health from Mental Health America.
- Pets Against Loneliness
- Created by HABRI and Mars Petcare, Pets Against Loneliness is a campaign dedicated to raising awareness of all the ways companion animals can help reduce social isolation and loneliness and remove barriers to access pets for those experiencing loneliness.
Pendry, P., Carr, A. M., Gee, N. R., & Vandagriff, J. L. (2020). Randomized Trial Examining Effects of Animal Assisted Intervention and Stress Related Symptoms on College Students’ Learning and Study Skills. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(6), 1909.