7 Ways Having a Pet Can Benefit Your Mental Health

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For centuries, people have found love and companionship in animals. That bond has only grown as time went on: animals were domesticated, brought indoors, and are now a part of millions of families worldwide. They take center stage in family photos and go everywhere their human goes. Some even have their own Instagram account.

Pet owners give so much to their animals, but what do they get in return? Research shows that pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, and fewer reports of depression and loneliness, but the benefits don’t stop there. The everyday changes that a pet brings to your life can have a positive impact on your habits and emotions. Read on to find out how having a pet can benefit your mental health.

 

1. They encourage you to be active.

 

Having a pet is a lot of work, no matter what species you care for, but larger animals such as dogs and horses will keep you especially active in your day to day life. Exercise, or even just a little physical activity, releases chemicals called neurotransmitters in your brain. These neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, react to receptors in your brain and trigger certain reactions and perceptions, such as an elevated mood. Even a short walk around the block is beneficial for both you and your pet.

 

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2. Pets can sense when something isn’t right.

 

Animals are instinctual creatures who can often sense the emotional distress of others. Dogs, for example, will learn your normal behaviors and habits, and because animals tend to be so observant of non-verbal communication, they will connect the dots and know that something isn’t right if you start behaving differently. Some dogs might get more protective, while others will cuddle up. Some cats might bring you a surprise from outside while others might just sit near you for a while. Each animal is unique and will react differently to the same situations, but odds are they’re just figuring out how to make everything better. 

 

3. They’re a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

 

Especially if you’re battling something like depression, a lack of motivation can feel like the end of the world. If you have a pet, though, you have a reason to get out of bed every day and push yourself to get something done (even if it’s just feeding the bird or walking the puppy). You may not always feel like you’ve been the most productive, but you make a huge impact on your pet’s life just by caring for them or spending some time together.

 

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4. You’ll never be lonely.

 

Having a pet means having a companion. Some animals may interact more than others, but you can always spend some time near your pet if they’re not the type to cuddle or be touched. It can help just to know that you’re not alone. 

Animals are great listeners. They’ll keep all your secrets safe, and they won’t judge you for anything you say or feel. Don’t forget that you always have someone to talk to.

 

5. Pet care can add structure and routine to your schedule.

 

Most pet families fall into some kind of routine, either for feeding, grooming, or even vet appointments. This ensures that these important tasks get done and no one has to wonder or worry about when to do them. 

Dr. Steve Orma, a Clinical Psychologist specializing in sleep, anxiety, and stress, believes routine is beneficial in maintaining low stress levels in people as well.  “Routine also helps with stress … Create a set schedule for doing chores, work tasks, meetings, exercise, paying bills, and all the usual things you need to do. Put these into your schedule. Once this becomes your normal routine, it’s easier to accomplish everything, because it becomes habit.”

 

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6. You’ll meet other pet owners and animal lovers.

 

Pets are great conversation starters and attention grabbers, so don’t be surprised to make a few new friends while showing off your four-legged friend. They can help ease you into a conversation if socializing isn’t your forte, and you’ll never be off-topic by bringing the conversation back to your pet. Having your buddy with you will give you that extra assurance that it’ll all be ok, even if the conversation gets a little awkward. Before you know it, you’ll have friends of all species.

 

7. They’ll help you live in the moment.

 

It’s difficult to be lost in your own mind when your pet is in your lap, begging for attention. Distractions like these help bring your mind back into focus on the present moment and what is right in front of you, rather than fixating on worries and negativity. 

Harvard researchers have been studying the ways pets can encourage mindfulness in their owners. They encourage you to observe your pet while out in the world. A dog on a walk is alert and curious–taking it all in, but how do we become the same? Harvard Health Publishing offers this simple mindfulness exercise any dog owner can try next time they’re out for a walk:

 

Try this:

  • As you start your walk, take a moment to bring your attention to the sensations in your body.
  • Breathe in through your nose. Let your abdomen expand fully. Then breathe out through your mouth. Notice the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation.
  • As you continue to walk, engage your senses fully. Notice each sight, touch, and sound. Savor every sensation.
  • When your mind wanders — and it undoubtedly will — gently bring your attention back to the moment, including your dog’s delight at being with you and outdoors.

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