It’s mental health awareness week and what better time to talk about the impact that pets can have on our general mental health. Whenever I’m feeling down, there’s nothing quite like a snuggle session on the sofa with whichever furbaby I can get my hands on to cheer me up.
It turns out that I am not alone and that all pets, not just therapy pets, can help your mind, body and spirit.
1. They get you outside: Sun and fresh air elevate your mood and the sun gives you an extra dose of vitamin D. Vitamin D exposure helps fight physical and mental conditions, including depression, cancer, obesity, and heart attacks. Walking your dog and engaging in outdoors activities like tossing a Frisbee gives you a natural energy boost, and allows you to let off steam. It also makes you more physically fit, strengthening your muscles and bones, which helps not only your body, but also your self-esteem. Studies have shown that animal owners, both adults and children, have lower blood pressure, as well as lower cholesterol and triglycerides, which may be in part attributed to the more active lifestyle pets promote. Pet owners also have been noted to have better circulation, and a lower risk of experiencing major cardiac issues. And when your body feels stronger, you are less susceptible to mental health issues.
2. They lessen allergies and asthma, and build immunity: This one may sound counterintuitive, but children who grow up in homes with furry friends are actually less likely to develop common allergies. Studies have shown that children who were exposed to two or more dogs or cats as babies were less than half as likely to develop allergies, including dust, grass, ragweed and pet allergies, and were at a lower risk for asthma. Allergies can cause people to become lethargic, apathetic, and suffer from insomnia, which can make them more vulnerable to mental health issues, such as depression.
3. They both distract you and keep you present: Being present and engaged with your pet takes your thoughts off of the issues that are plaguing you. When you are fully in the moment, you are not worrying about the past or the future. It’s just you and your pet. Another way to keep distracted and present with your furry friend is to take photos or videos of his or her cute antics and also pet them. Rhythmic petting or grooming can be comforting to your dog or cat, and 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.
4. They lessen loneliness: If you don’t like to be alone, pets can be great domestic companions. Often a pet is very intuitive and will seek you out when you’re feeling down, refusing to allow you to remain alone. Just make sure you can fully care for and love a pet before you take her home. Pets should not be used to fill a temporary void and then pushed aside. A dog or cat is a long-term commitment, and it’s not always easy, but if you are up to it, they can provide much love through the good times and the bad. They’re great listeners – you can talk to your pet about anything – your day, your hopes, your dreams. You can practice a speech with them, lament about a breakup, or utter truths that you may be afraid to actually share with someone else. A dog or cat can be the perfect “person” to go to when you want to vent without any potential repercussions.
5. They love you unconditionally: Seeing her enthusiasm when you walk in the door can be an instant mood-lifting boost. Her tail wagging, tongue hanging out her mouth making it look like she is smiling, the way her ears perk up. Her grunts or purrs. She doesn’t care if you just screwed up a deal at work, or bombed an exam, she loves you for being you, whatever that means on any given day. She’s just happy to see you. She wants to be around you, to love you, and be loved by you.
So go have some fun with your pooch or feline friend! Have a ball, with a ball, or anything else, and you will both benefit from the pleasurable together time.
And if you don’t have a pet or can’t get one right now, you can volunteer at a shelter. There are many animals that can still benefit from your love, and you will feel the benefits, too.