How Caring for Pets can Help You Deal with Depression, Anxiety, and Stress
The Health Benefits of Pets
If you’ve ever owned a pet, you already know how much fun and affection they can bring. But did you know that pets also come with some pretty powerful mental and physical health benefits? Dogs in particular can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve your cardiovascular health. Caring for a dog can help children grow up more secure and active or provide valuable companionship for older adults. Perhaps most importantly, though, a dog can add real joy and unconditional love to your life.
How do dogs improve mood and health?
More than any other animal, dogs have evolved to become acutely attuned to humans and our behavior and emotions. While dogs are able to understand many of the words we use, they’re even better at interpreting our tone of voice, body language, and gestures. And like any good human friend, a loyal dog will look into your eyes to gauge your emotional state and try to understand what you’re thinking and feeling (and to work out when the next walk or treat might be coming, of course). While most dog owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with canine companions, many remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that can also accompany the pleasure of playing with or snuggling up to a furry friend. It’s only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond. The American Heart Association has linked the ownership of pets, especially dogs, with a reduced risk for heart disease and greater longevity.
Studies have also found that:
- Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.
- People with dogs have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets. One study even found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.
- Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
- Heart attack patients with dogs survive longer than those without.
- Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
How can dogs help you make healthy lifestyle changes?
Adopting healthy lifestyle changes plays an important role in easing symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, bipolar disorder, and PTSD. Caring for a dog can help you make healthy lifestyle changes by:
Increasing exercise. Taking a dog for a walk, hike, or run are fun and rewarding ways to fit healthy daily exercise into your schedule. Studies have shown that dog owners are far more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements—and exercising every day is great for the animal as well. It will deepen the connection between you, eradicate most behavior problems in dogs, and keep your pet fit and healthy.
Providing companionship. Companionship can help prevent illness and even add years to your life, while isolation and loneliness can trigger symptoms of depression. Caring for a living animal can help make you feel needed and wanted, and take the focus away from your problems, especially if you live alone. Most dog and cat owners talk to their pets, some even use them to work through their troubles. And nothing beats loneliness like coming home to a wagging tail and wet kisses.
Helping you meet new people. Dogs can be a great social lubricant for their owners, helping you start and maintain new friendships. Dog owners frequently stop and talk to each other on walks, hikes, or in a dog park. Dog owners also meet new people in pet stores, clubs, and training classes.
Reducing anxiety. The companionship of a dog can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world. Because dogs live in the moment—they don’t worry about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow—they can help you become more mindful and appreciate the joy of the present.
Numerous studies have linked dog ownership to weight loss:
One year-long study found that walking an overweight dog helped both the animals and their owners lose weight. Researchers found that the dogs provided support in similar ways to a human exercise buddy, but with greater consistency and without any negative influence. Public housing residents who walked therapy dogs for up to 20 minutes five days a week lost an average of 14.4 pounds in a year, without changing their diets. A third study found that people who got a dog walked 30 minutes more a week than they did before. Source: Harvard Health Publications
Dogs and the health benefits for children
Not only do children who grow up with pets have less risk of allergies and asthma, many also learn responsibility, compassion, and empathy from having a dog or cat.
1. Unlike parents or teachers, pets are never critical and don’t give orders. They are always loving and their mere presence at home can help provide a sense of security in children. Having an ever-present dog can help ease separation anxiety in children when mom and dad aren’t around.
2. Having the love and companionship of a loyal dog can make a child feel important and help him or her develop a positive self-image.
3. Kids who are emotionally attached to their dog are better able to build relationships with other people.
Studies have also shown that dogs can help calm hyperactive or overly aggressive kids. Of course, both the dog and the child need to be trained to behave appropriately with each other.
Children and adults alike can benefit from playing with dogs, which can be both a source of calmness and relaxation, as well as a source of stimulation for the brain and body. Playing with a dog can even be a doorway to learning for a child. It can stimulate a child’s imagination and curiosity. The rewards of training a dog to perform a new trick, for example, can teach kids the importance of perseverance. Caring for a furry friend can also offer another benefit to a child: immense joy.
Where to find the perfect dog: If you have a specific breed of dog in mind, you can look for rescue group that caters to that breed or seek out a reputable breeder. Ask for a referral from other dog owners, a veterinarian, or local breed club or rescue group, but remember: a reputable breeder will always want to meet you before selling a dog to ensure that you’ll be a suitable, responsible owner.
Shelter and rescue dogs: Whether a mixed breed or a purebred, dogs adopted from a shelter or rescue group make excellent pets. For the most part, a dog ends up in a shelter through no fault of his own. His owner may have died or moved to a place that doesn’t allow pets, or he may have simply been abandoned by irresponsible owners who bought him on a whim and later discovered they were unable or unwilling to care for him properly. If any shelter or rescue dog exhibits aggressive behavior, he is typically euthanized rather than offered for adoption.
“Avoid puppies sold in pet stores or on the Internet”
Pet stores that care about puppies don’t sell them. That’s because the majority of pet stores that sell puppies carry dogs from cruel and inhumane puppy mills. Puppy mills are like dog-making factories with the mother dogs spending their entire lives in cramped cages or kennels with little or no personal attention or quality of life. When
the mother and father dogs can no longer breed, they are discarded or killed. Consumers who purchase puppies from pet stores or over the Internet without seeing a breeder’s home firsthand are often unknowingly supporting this cruel industry. Help stop this cycle of cruelty simply by choosing to adopt your next pet from a shelter or rescue, or by only purchasing a dog from a responsible breeder who will show you where your puppy was born and raised.
Source: The Humane Society of the United States