All pet owners know the immediate benefits of sharing their lives with a companion, however there is an abundance of physical and mental health advantages that come from being around your furry friend. Having a pet around you constantly can decrease stress, improve physical health and fitness, and reduce anxiety levels while in social situations.
A dog has the ability to understand our emotions and behaviour allowing them to be a great friend when we are feeling down. More than any other animal, dogs have evolved to be able to recognise our tone of voice, body language, and gestures, and can improve your mood through one dopey look or a nudge on your arm looking for a rub.
Some of the major health benefits of owning a pet include:
- Reducing stress: Research shows that patting a pet can reduce your blood pressure and ease stress as hormones related to stress and anxiety are released when you connect with your pet. Even watching a pet fish swim around can lower stress levels.
- Distract your thoughts: Being engaged with your pet allows your mind to focus on the present and takes your thoughts off the issues in the past or future. By focusing on your pet and their needs, your mind is taken off yourself and the pet’s positive response is instant gratification.
- Purpose in life: Owning a pet can provide you with a sense of purpose, which is a major key in improving mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Dogs can offer comfort and build confidence for people with anxiety in social situations and allow you to become more mindful and appreciative of the present.
- Lessen loneliness: If you own a pet, you are never truly alone. Most pets are very intuitive and will often seek you out when you’re feeling down, doing their best to comfort you and refusing to leave you alone.
- Provide a routine: Most pets require a routine of feeding, cleaning, and exercise which can boost your motivation and positively impact your mental well-being.
- Socialise: Having a dog as a pet allows for more opportunities for social interaction for both you and your canine friend. Whether it be through walking, a dog park, pet-friendly events, or waiting in line at the vets, a dog will always make friends easily and allow you to have an instant conversation due to the shared interest in your pets.
- Great listeners: Pets are non-judgmental which allows you to be able to talk to them about anything, from practicing a speech to venting about your day, your pet is always there to listen.
- Unconditional love: Being greeted at the door by your enthusiastic dog can be an instant mood-lifting boost. No matter what you have going on in your life outside of home, you are your pet’s whole world and they will always be happy to see you and be around you.
- Exercise: Dogs need regular walks and exercise, which means dog owners have made a commitment to actively be outside every day. Being outside in the sun and fresh air improves your chance at fighting physical and mental health conditions such as depression, obesity, and heart attacks, all whilst keeping your dog active and healthy.
A dog is seen to be the most valuable pet to own when increasing mental and physical health, however some reasons may mean that dog ownership is not possible for you. Some ways to still experience the benefits of dogs include:
- Walk a friend’s dog
- Volunteer at an animal shelter. Most shelters welcome volunteers to help care for the homeless dogs which will benefit from socialising and being more adoptable.
- Foster a dog. If you can’t commit to a long term commitment, some shelters allow ‘rental’ programs where you can look after the dog (walks, playdates, foster temporarily) until a permanent home is found.
- Therapy dogs. A variety of organisations offer therapy dogs and cats to visit where you can interact with the animals to improve your mood and reduce stress and anxiety.
Pets are not for everyone battling mental health problems, so before jumping into pet ownership, ask yourself:
- Are you comfortable with animals?
- Will having a pet make you worry? Some mental health issues mean that dwelling on death is common, therefore pet ownership may only add to your issues.
- Is your mental health problem too intense right now? Owning a pet may not be the best option for you or the animal if your mental health issues are too much.
- Can you afford a pet? Pets are a long term commitment and therefore will require a lot of money for food, grooming, and vets.
If you are really struggling to look after yourself, then talk to your doctor before you take on caring for a pet.
If you need help, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.ruok.org.au/findhelp for more information.