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Published on January 28, 2020

The ‘Pet Effect’ and Its Impact on Your Mental Health

Ask nearly any pet owner and you’ll hear how spending time with an animal can help them relax and alleviate stress. The phrase “emotional support animal” has become commonplace in popular culture. And though it may seem too good to be true, the science behind the “pet effect” is beginning to back up the claim that pets improve our well-being.

Studies have found that service dogs aid treatment for military members and veterans struggling with PTSD; that pet ownership benefits those experiencing mental health problems; and that therapy dogs reduce stress and increase feelings of well-being in college students. Moreover, a lot of research is being done on how animals can help children with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and other conditions, be more comfortable and present in the classroom.

The Mental Health Foundation of the UK claims that “a pet can be a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation for their owners. In many ways, pets can help us to live mentally healthier lives.”

So what is it about pets that makes such a difference?

Pet ownership creates a sense of responsibility. In turn, that sense of responsibility promotes many positive behaviors with benefits for both our behavioral and physical health. Regular exercise, for example, helps improve mood and well-being – taking a dog on daily walks is just part of caring for a pet, but it exposes the owner to the mental and physical benefits of exercising.

Pet ownership has social benefits. Walking a pet gets its owner out of the house and into their community, where they can meet new people or interact with other pet owners.

Caring for a pet requires following a routine and building some structure into your day. While the schedule you follow may be one you set up for your pet, just having a regular routine in the first place can be an important accomplishment for many struggling with their mental health.

Stroking a dog, cat or other animal helps reduce stress. In fact, even the companionship itself of having a pet around can be a source of comfort and relaxation. Pet ownership can counteract feelings of loneliness and help ward off anxiety. It also can establish a sense of pride or achievement, which can be very important to someone with depression or anxiety.

Volunteer or Visit. If you’re unable to have a pet, consider volunteering at a local animal shelter or visiting a friend with a pet. Many of the benefits of time spent with animals can be realized just after a short time spent with an animal (though the effects tend to be strongest between a pet and its owner). If larger pets are out of the question, think about guinea pigs or fish. Even these more “low-maintenance” pets can help you de-stress and build resiliency.

Mental Health Screening
If you want to learn more about your own mental health, consider taking our anonymous online screening. Bryan Medical Center West Campus provides a continuum of mental health services and has a mental health emergency department available 24/7 for those in a mental health crisis situation. The Bryan Counseling Center is available for those in non-crisis situations at 402-481-5991.

dave miers

About Dr. Dave Miers

Dave Miers, PhD, is the counseling and program development manager for mental health services at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, Neb.

He helped establish the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition in 1999 and chaired/co-chaired this Coalition until 2017. He currently serves on the Board of Directors. Dr. Miers is a member of the leadership group for the Lincoln/Lancaster County Suicide Prevention Coalition. Dr. Miers has published research and co-authored a chapter in the Routledge International Handbook of Clinical Suicide Research focusing on family survivors of a child suicide. Dr. Miers helped develop the Lincoln Lancaster Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) team in Lincoln, Neb. He also helped develop other LOSS teams in Nebraska and is active with LOSS team development on a national level.

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