Man’s best friend. Furry companion. Fur baby. There’s a reason why we love pets as much as we do, and why Australia has one of the highest pet ownership rates in the world.
“Pets help make us better humans,” says Brisbane psychologist Christine Bagley-Jones. “They are unequivocally good for your mental health.
“From the simplest perspective, it’s a relationship, and humans thrive when they’re in good relationships. If you have a healthy, wholesome relationship with an animal, they give you a reason to smile and laugh daily. And the skills and emotional range that you experience have so many beneficial qualities.”
From providing structure to our lives to helping us combat loneliness and depression, pet ownership benefits our mental health in meaningful, measurable ways.
Here are six of them.
Pets give us purpose
Looking after another living creature is a big responsibility, and it’s not for everyone. It’s an opportunity to prove your capability and to be accountable to something other than yourself. But if you can manage it, the act of caring can give you a sense of purpose or a feel-good rush known as a ‘helper’s high’ or ‘giver’s glow’.
“That selfless act of feeling responsible for the wellbeing of another is extremely good for a person’s sense of self,” Christine says. “That sense of being needed gives you a feeling of purpose and belonging.”
Humans are social creatures, designed to crave touch and interaction. It floods us with oxytocin —the hormone that makes us feel lovestruck. That’s why petting a dog or a cat feels so good. Unlike many relationships, the love you share with your pet is refreshingly uncomplicated.
“It’s a beautiful expression of unconditional love,” Christine says. “It’s very reciprocal—your pet will love you back, and that love will be really observable. Even in cats.”
It could be a slow blink of big, adoring eyes, a wet nose kissing your cheek, or just the warmth of a small body curled up next to you. Loneliness is a huge risk factor for poor mental health, and simply having another living creature around can make a real difference.
One study published in BMC Psychiatry in 2018 found that pets can help people experiencing mental health conditions by alleviating loneliness, reducing stress and providing distraction. The love of a pet opens you up. It brightens your mood and gives you a good dose of the emotional nourishment humans need.
“Pets give you that full range of emotion,” Christine says. “They make you laugh with their antics. Sometimes they’ll elicit tears, like when they’re being particularly beautiful.
You have that great depth of love and compassion. They’ll pull at your heart strings in all different directions, and that’s good for us—it’s good for the human condition.
Pets encourage us to exercise
Most pets require regular exercise and—unless you’re the proud owner of a mouse with a spinning wheel—that means their owners tend to exercise along with them. That’s one of the benefits of having a dog: they need daily walks and the opportunity to run and play, often in wide open spaces like parks. For humans, this kind of incidental exercise can quickly add to your daily step count, which means you’re getting both the physical and mental health benefits of cardiovascular fitness.
Pets create opportunities for socialisation
People love to bond over their pets and to form a community around them, whether that’s through shared pet-sitting responsibilities or by allowing their pets to play together. And, if social situations make you anxious, pets can help calm your nerves by slowly introducing you to other pet owners, such as by meeting people at the dog park or through your local vet.
Pets provide routine
Pet care also demands routine. Regular feeding times, playtime, plus walks and exercise all help add structure to your day, which studies have shown is beneficial for people who are at risk of poorer health—like the elderly, or people living with mental illness or other chronic conditions.
“Having a pet also fills in time—there’s not much room for boredom when you’ve got a pet,” Christine adds. “It can also give you a sense of responsibility for your own care, because you want to stick around and be well enough to look after your pet. I see that in mature aged people all the time—getting a whole new lease on life when they get a pet, because now there’s something they’ve got to be keeping in mind when they’re engaging in their self-care.”
Pets help us reduce stress
Pets have a natural way of calming us down, helping to dissolve stress and anxiety. Some studies show that cuddling or stroking an animal can slow your heart rate and lower blood pressure. The rhythmic, repetitive motion can be meditative, and the soft sensation of fur against your skin brings instinctive comfort.
If you choose it to be, sitting quietly with your pet can be a magical way to practice mindfulness. “You can choose to really focus your attention on that activity,” Christine says. “You’re in the moment, you’re really present, you’re snuggling up together or gazing into each other’s eyes, and your pet is loving it. If you just allow all five senses to be immersed in that moment, it’s hard to find a better example of mindfulness.”