You’ve heard it a million times over the past few months: we are living in an unprecedented time. One that is punctuated by uncertainty and lifestyle changes that we never could have predicted.
As society remains largely shuttered in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are reeling from disrupted routines, financial pressures, and social isolation.
And our mental health is taking a beating because of it.
In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, our team at Rover wanted to explore and share the role that our pets play in all of this. How do our pets affect our mental health, if at all?
What we discovered was encouraging, to say the least. We found that when your mind, body, and spirit are weary, your pet can act as a balm—a source of comfort and relief.
And that’s not just hearsay. There’s scientific evidence to back it up.
Here are some ways that pets can have a positive impact on our mental health.
Did you know that pet owners have fewer doctors’ appointments than people who don’t have pets? It’s true—the numbers don’t lie! Studies have also shown that pet owners:
- Take fewer days off from work
- Are less likely to take sleep aid medication
- Have better self-reported fitness levels
- Exercise more frequently
That all sounds like good news to me. But how exactly does my Boston terrier help me avoid the sick clinic? How do our pets keep us physically healthier?
According to Phil Tedeschi, clinical professor and Executive Director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, the answer involves two main components: pets encourage us to exercise, and pets lower our stress levels. Both of which contribute to better overall mental health.
Most of us could use the extra push to get our daily steps in, and pets have a knack for motivating us to stay active. After all, even the laziest dog will require you to get off the couch occasionally. Walking and playing with your pet will not only strengthen your body, but it will also boost your energy and raise your self-esteem. All important considerations when it comes to protecting our mental health during the COVID-19 crisis.
But the health benefits of pet ownership don’t stop there. WebMD points out that interacting with companion animals can decrease our cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Remarkably, simply petting our animals has been scientifically proven to relieve anxiety and lower stress. Results of a study conducted at Washington State University suggest that all it takes is 10 minutes of stroking an animal to bring down your stress hormone levels.
And let’s be honest—these days, we could all use a little help relaxing.
One study turned up some particularly interesting discoveries. Researchers compared the cortisol levels of dog owners in three unique situations: petting their own dog, petting an unfamiliar dog, and quietly reading a book without a dog present. Guess which scenario yielded the most dramatic drop in cortisol? You got it—the one where people were able to pet their own dog.
As a result of Covid-19, many of us are now working from home. Here at Rover, we wanted to learn more about how pet owners were faring with this transition. So this past March our team carried out a survey of 1,000 US-based pet owners to really see how you are doing.
The results were eye-opening.
The vast majority of pet parents (70%) confirmed what we already know about the correlation between pets and exercise, reporting that working from home had helped them stay active.
What was even more remarkable (and a true testament to the healing power of animals) was the fact that two-thirds of participants actually considered themselves happier working from home. The reason? They had their trusty pet for company. These may be uncertain times, but our pets can ease our worries by providing the companionship we so desperately need right now.
Our survey also revealed that many pet owners turn to their furry four-legged companion for stress relief. A whopping 86% of participants expressed that spending time with their pets helped take their mind off nail-biting topics like the coronavirus, the economy, and politics.
If you feel your head spinning every time you turn on the news, you may find yourself turning to your dog or cat for comfort. You wouldn’t be alone if you did. 40% of our survey participants admitted they turn to their pet in times of high stress, instead of a significant other (23%) or another family member (13%).
It’s no great surprise that we seek out our pets when stress and anxiety strike. Animals make exceptional listeners! You can spill your guts to Fido, without any fear of repercussions or judgment. Plus, pets are pros at both distracting us from our worries while keeping us grounded in the present moment. Whether you’re snapping selfies together, or tossing the frisbee around, it’s hard to feel down when we’re interacting with our beloved companion animals.
Even when we’re in the worst mood, our pets never fail to put a smile on our face.
And as a 2009 study from Japan’s Azabu University shows: the feeling is mutual.
Researchers discovered that just as pet owners get an oxytocin boost when gazing into their dogs’ eyes, dogs also experience a spike in oxytocin when they see us. (Which explains those darling puppy eyes we all go gaga over.)
It’s not unusual to consider your pet one of your best friends. (I’ve said it about my own cat more than once.) This profound relationship that we share with our pets can benefit us in two major ways during this outbreak: they can banish our loneliness, and they can help us develop some much-needed social skills.
One study took a look at the effects that pets have on adults who live alone. It revealed (not surprisingly) that pet owners who lived alone were 36% less likely than non-pet owners to report loneliness. In our current landscape of social-distancing, this is one stat we’re especially happy to hear about.
Plus, pets have a way of counteracting social isolation. A friendly dog can be a real icebreaker, helping you connect with new people at the dog park or during your daily walks. And the more social connections and friendships we have, the healthier our mental state tends to be. Our social connections boost our self-esteem, give us a more optimistic outlook, and lower our risk of anxiety and depression. (Newport Academy)
Animals have also been shown to help us develop social skills, which is something we could all use a little refresher on nowadays. A study conducted at the University of Bristol established a link between children who grew up with pets and increased social competence. From eye contact to our use of language, pets help us refine the skills that make it easier for us to build relationships with other people.
In this volatile time where many of us feel helpless, pets can help us regain a sense of purpose and control in our lives. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, our pet can essentially redirect and refocus our attention. Caring for another living creature takes us outside of ourselves by forcing us to focus on something beyond our own problems. Which is a healthy (and effective!) way to refresh our perspective.
As a pet owner, there are some duties you just can’t ignore. Litter boxes need to be scooped, water bowls need to be refreshed, and energetic dogs need to be walked. But all of these extra chores are a good thing—they help us build healthy habits that lead to improved mental health. Some examples include:
- Exercise: If you own a dog, you’re got an extra incentive to take more walks and hikes.
- Time spent outside: You can’t deny the mood boost you feel when you catch a bit of sunlight and fresh air. Not to mention the added benefit of Vitamin D exposure, which helps us fight depression. Being in nature with your pet is an incredible way to soothe jittery nerves.
- Self-care: When we take care of an animal, we’re reminded to take care of ourselves as well. Something that is imperative during this tense and mentally draining time.
The fact is: pets aren’t mere mood boosters. They’re literally mental health rescuers.
Animals don’t fret over the future, and they don’t concern themselves with the past. They exist entirely in the moment, enjoying whatever is immediately in front of them. Perhaps it’s time we take our cue from our furry friends and celebrate all the ways they enrich our lives and keep us mentally well.
Rover.com survey of 1,000 US based pet parents in March 2020 via Pollfish