20th February is National Love Your Pet Day – a day to love your Labrador, cuddle your cat, bond with your bunny or pet your parakeet! While showing affection to your furry (or feathered) friend will make them feel loved, research shows that you benefit too. The link between pets and mental health is well-established – from reducing your stress and anxiety to boosting your mood. Here are just some of the mental health benefits of pets.

Pets and the pandemic

Did you get a lockdown puppy? A lot of people did. With everyone stuck at home, and not much allowed outside beyond a daily walk, there was a huge boom in pet ownership in the early days of the pandemic. A total of 3.2m households in the UK have acquired a pet since the start of COVID, according to a report by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association.

If you were working from home, it suddenly became an easier to care for an animal than in the office-working days of the beforetimes. New pets gave bored families and fractious home-schooled kids another focus. For locked-down singles, they provided companionship. And, in the depths of the dark, uncertain, anxious days of the early pandemic, getting a pet was a cheering thing to do. It provided new pet owners with a new, positive energy. A bundle of life amid the loss.

Pets were good for our mental health during the pandemic. They reduced loneliness. A majority of dog and cat owners believed their pet had an ‘extremely positive’ effect on their wellbeing during the pandemic, according to research conducted by the University of the West of Scotland. But pets have mental health benefits in more normal times, too.

10 mental health benefits of pets

If you have a pet, you’re probably already aware of some of the ways they cheer you up – from a wagging tail to greet you after a hard day at work to a cuddle with the cat when you’re feeling down.

There’s hard science to back this up. Research suggests that pets have many mental health benefits – including reducing stress, anxiety and loneliness, and boosting mood. One survey, by The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), showed that 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership. Some of the mental health benefits of owning a pet include:

  1. Lower stress. Having a pet reduces your stress levels. Playing with your pet can also increase your levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax. And pet owners have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets. Research shows that talking to or stroking your pet also lowers your blood pressure and heart rate. One study found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.
  2. Reduced anxiety. The companionship of a pet can help to ease your anxiety. Pets fulfil the basic human need for touch – so stroking or hugging your pet can calm and soothe you when you’re stressed or anxious. Pets also live in the moment, rather than ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. So pets are a great mindfulness reminder to focus on the present moment with them.
  3. Less risk of depression. Studies show that pet owners are less likely to struggle with depression than those without pets. Pets sense when you’re feeling down or depressed, and offer comfort. They remind you that you’re not alone.
  4. Boosted mood. Pets cheer you up: Fact. Is your pet always thrilled to see you when you come in from work? That tail-wagging energy is infectious. And there’s always someone to talk to about your day.
  5. Greater self-confidence. Pets are great listeners! They offer unconditional love and won’t criticise you or gossip about you behind your back. This can help your self-confidence, especially if you struggle with low self-esteem. They can also give you a sense of comfort and security.
  6. Companionship. Pets provide companionship and a sense of security and purpose. Caring for your pet can help you feel loved, wanted and needed. This can be especially valuable if you live alone.
  7. More structure. Having a pet to care for adds structure to your day. The responsibility of pet ownership means there’s always something to do – whether taking the dog for a walk, changing the cat litter or feeding the hamster. This daily routine can help you feel more grounded and focused. It gives your day purpose. People with ADHD may especially benefit from the structure and routine that a pet needs.
  8. A happier workplace. According to research by Purina, having pets in the workplace reduces stress, promotes happiness and increases collaboration. Work from home and/or for yourself? You already have a pet-friendly workplace! Promote your pet to Chief Happiness Officer immediately.
  9. Build mastery. Learning to care for a pet, or perhaps taking your puppy to training classes, can help you build a sense of achievement and mastery.
  10. More joy! Pets can bring a sense of playfulness and joy to your life. And if you’re feeling down, there’s nothing like a friendly furry face to cheer you up.

Dogs and mental health

Are you a cat person or a dog person? Maybe you’re more of a pygmy hedgehog or tarantula person? We’re not here to judge. While the above mental health benefits apply to all pets, if you happen to be a dog person, there are a couple of extra benefits you can expect:

  • Get more exercise. If you own a dog, you have to walk it – whatever the weather, however you’re feeling. This can incentivise you to get out and get some daily exercise – in a fun way that fits your routine. Exercise has mental health benefits as well as physical ones. And research shows that dog ownership is great for cardiovascular health – including reducing hypertension and obesity.
  • Meet new people. Chatting to random strangers is considered weird in many parts of the world. Unless you’re a dog owner – in which case it’s completely normal to stop and chat to each other on walks! Dogs can also help you meet people in other ways too – such as at puppy training classes.

What if I can’t have a pet?

What if your living situation doesn’t make pet ownership a practical option? Perhaps you live in a tiny flat, your landlord doesn’t allow pets. Maybe allergies restrict your choice of pet. Or you simply don’t have the time and resources for the commitment of pet ownership.

Before rushing out to adopt that new puppy, kitten, parrot or terrapin it’s important to consider whether you’ll be able to care for it properly. If you can’t, or if circumstances just don’t allow yet, there are other options.

  • Consider alternative animals. If you don’t have room or resources for a cat or dog, smaller animals are available – such as rabbits, hamsters or guinea pigs. Or something more exotic, like lizards or snakes. Even watching fish in an aquarium can calm you and lower your pulse rate.
  • Help a friend. Do you have a friend with an adorable pet that you can help look after – perhaps while they’re on holiday? Or can you help out with dog walking – or find another excuse to spend time with their pet?
  • Borrow a dog. If you want a dog in your life, but can’t manage one full-time, consider signing up with Borrow My Doggy. They connect dog owners who need help with walks, weekends or holidays to local people who would love to spend time with a dog. It can also be a great way to try out dog ownership before committing to getting one. Maybe you could even borrow dogs professionally. If you’re looking for a new business opportunity, the boom in pandemic pets has also led to a boom in demand for dog walkers, as people return to offices!
  • Foster a pet. If you can only look after an animal short-term, fostering may be an option. Some animals need the quiet and security of a home while they’re waiting to be adopted – so animal shelters often need short-term foster carers. Cats Protection and Dogs Trust also need people to offer temporary foster care for pets belonging to people fleeing domestic violence. And The Cinnamon Trust needs people to foster pets while their owners are in hospital.
  • Volunteer. Are there any volunteering opportunities at your local llama sanctuary, donkey rescue centre or dog’s home? There may be ways to interact with and care for animals that don’t involve them taking over your home. The Cinnamon Trust also needs volunteer dog walkers to help out older people or those with a health condition or disability that means they can no longer walk their dog as easily as they once could. Volunteering is also great for your mental health – so it’s a win-win.

Pets and mental health – the pros and cons

Despite the many mental health benefits, it’s important to remember that a pet isn’t a cure-all. And, however good a listener they are, they’re no substitute for therapy (though one of the benefits of online therapy is that you can bring your pet to your sessions!)

Pet ownership is also a major commitment, involving time, money and careful thought. And if you’re simply not an ‘animal person’, a pet probably won’t improve your life. Bear in mind too that, unless you opt for a giant tortoise, you’ll probably outlive your pet and have a period of mourning to cope with when you lose a much-loved companion. But the time you have together may bring great joy.

Caring for a pet is a responsibility – but one that can bring happiness and companionship to our lives. And they’ll care for you in return, by being a good companion, easing your worries, cheering you up – and generally helping to improve your mental health and wellbeing.