The positive effects of pet ownership on mental health
The effects of pet ownership on human health can be incredibly healing. It's long been understood that human-animal interactions, as simple as spending time with one—and especially petting one—can help lower cortisol levels, the chemical responsible for the feeling of stress.1 This same action can also release dopamine and serotonin, two chemicals that create feelings of love and contentment. (2)
These are just some reasons why therapy dogs and other therapy animals have been used to help people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety, and severe physical illnesses. The companionship of an animal and the effects of pet ownership can do so much good for overall mental health.3
According to their findings, forging a relationship with an animal can also reduce feelings of loneliness, increase feelings of comfort and support, and generally boost someone's mood, all of which are helpful in eating disorder recovery.1 One scientist theorized that this might be because a pet's behavior mirrors a mindfulness practice, including:1
A pet's way of being in the present moment, for example, of sitting with someone who may be struggling and simply being there, exuding love, can even be a subconscious example of how we hope to be treated.
Additional health benefits of pet ownership
Pets provide additional benefits beyond even boosting mental health.
Depending on the type of animal being cared for, the pet owner's role can also invite opportunities for exercising and mindful movement, especially for those needing to walk dogs. This may help explain—but not completely account for—the fact that pet owners of all stripes regularly have lower blood pressure than non-pet owners and lower levels of triglyceride and cholesterol in their blood.2
For older people, these bonuses can be especially beneficial, with pet owners age 65 or over reportedly making 30% fewer non-preventative care visits to their doctors.2
And having a walkable pet—especially a dog—can also act as an excellent reason to leave the house and get some fresh air every day, and serve as an opening for more socializing or a way to meet new friends. But it's not just dog owners reaping the benefits; other pets also provide positive health effects and can help reduce various health risks.
One trial, conducted as part of the NIH study, followed a group of teenagers with type I diabetes. The group was charged with caring for a pet fish—specifically, feeding it once daily, checking water levels twice a day, and cleaning the tank weekly. By the study's end, compared to a control group, these teens were far more attentive about checking their glucose levels—a crucial aspect of living with type I diabetes.1
Pet ownership: what to consider
While the mental health benefits and other positive effects of pet ownership on human health can be incredibly fulfilling, it's important to understand the gravity of taking in and caring for an animal. Adopting a pet can be an incredibly rewarding and healing experience for someone in eating disorder recovery—the human-animal bond is real—but there are some things to remember before adopting.
Before bringing a pet home with you, it's essential to take into account some important considerations, including the:
- Cost of caring for an animal
- Time and attention an animal needs
- Impact on your schedule and social life
- Impact on your living environment (rugs and furniture that may be destroyed)
- Increased difficulty in finding pet-friendly housing
- Additional support systems that can help in their care
It would also be good to research different animal shelters in your area. Unfortunately, not all shelters are created equal, and many entail less-than-humane conditions.
Still, if you've done your homework and feel ready, pet ownership can be a beautiful journey, welcoming a new member into the family and sharing—and expanding—the love in your life.