Are there mental health benefits to owning a pet?

Niamh Delmar is an accredited counseling psychologist and offers psychological support workshops in work settings. Here he explains the pros and cons of owning a pet when it comes to mental health.

The human-animal bond provides psychological and physical benefits. A recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association found that the companionship of animals has a positive impact on mental health. She found that pets provide a calming presence, relieve stress, encourage physical activity and increase social interactions. Pet-related routines provide predictability and a sense of accomplishment.

Pets help with feelings of loneliness as they can help people feel loved and needed. Coming home to an empty house is easier when you have a pet eagerly awaiting your return. The presence of an animal gives a sense of safety and security.

Dog owners report a special connection. Dogs understand words and can detect emotional states. Humans may enjoy the wagging of a tail or the purring of a cat. Many pet owners talk to their animals. Pets can fulfill the basic need for touch and play an important role in recovery.

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Research has found that 74% of pet owners reported improved mental health. Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, has been found to increase by 50% when interacting with dogs. This calms the system by reducing the stress hormone cortisol.

People also often report calming effects from watching fish in an aquarium. Pet rabbits are calm and gentle, and require less intensive care. Playing with pets increases levels of the happiness hormones serotonin and dopamine.

A report by Petmania in 2023 revealed that 62% of Irish pet owners found that their pets helped reduce stress and anxiety, and 56% saw an improvement in their overall mood .

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The therapeutic effects of pets are well documented. Dogs can provide attention by performing tasks such as alerting people to impending seizures. They help people to have a better quality of life. Therapy dogs, cats, rabbits and horses are some of the companion animals used as emotional support.

People diagnosed with many conditions such as depression, autism, ADHD, PTSD and Alzheimer’s benefit. Companion animals are increasingly being used as part of improving mental health. Prisoners and high-security psychiatric patients have found animal therapy to have calming effects, inducing empathy and outward focus, and ameliorating aggression. Nursing homes and hospitals are recognizing the positive outcomes of human-animal interactions.

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Pets help you be aware and fall into the present moment and promote a sense of playfulness and fun. Pets are unconditionally loving, non-judgmental and loyal. Bonds with pets grow and deepen over time. They are a testament to your state of mind and your life story. They also provide people with a sense of purpose in life, which is an important factor contributing to well-being.

Dog owners in particular experience increased levels of physical activity that improves mental and physical health. Walking the dog, for example, gets people outdoors to move outdoors and engage in social interactions. Pet related forums can help expand your social circle.

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The hardest part of owning a pet is the loss. The deeper the infection, the sharper the pain. Pet pain is real and affects people in different ways. Many pet owners describe their pet as part of the family. People are often reluctant to share their feelings for fear of being dismissed or their grief minimized. It is a type of loss that is less understood and recognized.

Empathy may not flow so easily. The death of pets can trigger or exacerbate mental health problems. Studies have found that indoor pets had a deeper impact on bad animal owners. People need to grieve in their own way and at their own pace and open up to those who understand, even if it’s online.

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It can be especially difficult for children who may hide their pain or act out. It’s important to be honest in an age-appropriate way and also express your sadness.

The death of pets can open up conversations about mortality. Involving children in a memorial service, compiling a scrapbook, or keeping memories can be a healing part of the process.

For older pet owners, grieving can be more difficult. The pet may have been their companion living with them. For many people without pet insurance, they may not be able to pay the vet bills to extend their pets’ lives. Some may feel guilty if they had to make the decision to have their pet euthanized.

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For my family and I, owning dogs (and a few fish) has been a wonderful experience. Our 16 year old labrador failed during the past time was hard to watch and it was hard work, and then dying a few weeks ago was painful, but the joy he brought was immense.

It is important to do your research and select the right pet for you or your family. Pet boarding can be a way to experience the benefits and gain some experience.

We need to take the role of animals seriously and expand their presence in classrooms, the workplace, hospitals, mental health centers, nursing homes and beyond.

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this story, visit: www.rte.ie/helplines.

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