Which is better, dogs or cats? At last, science has something to add to the debate, and the evidence base is clear: owning a pet, of any kind, can be good for your mental health. Here are some of the reasons why:
Statistically speaking, pet owners talk to more people. This is partly because pets provide good talking points: they give us attention, they do funny things, and they structure our day. Around 50% of households in the UK own a pet, so the likelihood is, if you talk to someone about your pet you will share a common interest.
Research also shows that walking a dog significantly increases your likelihood of having conversations with strangers – especially if the dog is young and/or well-mannered. This ability to catalyse social interactions is extremely important: Social contact is thought to be one of the largest factors in maintaining both physical and mental health, and can speed recovery following illness.
Pets are widely regarded as loyal and affectionate companions. They provide a familiar and reliable presence, and when surveyed, pet owners report that the routine of looking after a pet is comforting. Pets may have an important role to play in combatting loneliness, thus ownership may be particularly beneficial to those with quieter social schedules, such as those who are unemployed, and older adults. Importantly, they also provide a buffer against stress: simply having a pet close by has been shown to reduce our reaction to anxiety-provoking events.
Domestic animals need looking after. When you choose to buy a pet, their welfare becomes your responsibility. This is a huge undertaking, but the evidence suggests that it can be every bit as rewarding as it is challenging. Pets give their owners a reason to get out of bed; to go to a shop; to exercise. Staying well becomes more important when you have someone who depends on you to survive, and the research shows that pet owners are healthier and more motivated to recover after illness than non-pet owners.
20th century psychologist Carl Rogers famously talked about ‘unconditional positive regard’ as a fundamental human development need. Animal behaviour expert Dr Deborah Wells argues that dogs offer this in abundance, with positive effects on our self-concept. This may be more true of dogs than others pets; however, no animal will hold us to the same standards as our peers. Animals do not argue or bear grudges, and they do not judge us on our wealth, wisdom or wit. To many, their pet is their closest confidant, with whom they can disclose their most closeted thoughts and feelings. Pets provide a relationship we can rely on at the most difficult of times, around whom we can be entirely ourselves without fear of judgement.
We want what’s best for our pet, and are usually happy to take advice on how best to look after it. For instance, it is widely recognised that different animals require different diets: this may range from Pedigree Chum to frozen mice, depending on whether you own a puppy or a python. Likewise, when our animals are unwell, we often go to great lengths to rehabilitate them, following veterinary advice with tenacity. By recognising the importance of exercise, diet and medication in looking after another, we can understand and look after our own health and wellbeing needs.
Despite all the benefits, owning a pet can be challenging, particularly when coupled with mental health difficulties. It can cost a lot in terms of both time and money, and can limit opportunities to be spontaneous or take holidays. Research also shows that 90% of pet owners consider them a family member, and many grieve the death of a pet as they would a human. Whilst any relationship opens us up to heartache, whether your pet of choice is large or small, furry, scaly or feathered, pets can offer those experiencing emotional difficulties huge satisfaction and enjoyment.
If you are struggling with a mental health condition then please call 0203 326 9160 to see how we can help.
Clinical Partners is the UK’s largest private mental health partnership, helping children, adults, families and organisations nationwide.
1 Brooks, H., Rushton, K., Lovell, K., Walker, S., & Rogers, A. (2016). Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: A study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. BMC Psychiatry, 16(409). DOI: 10.1186/s12888-016-1111-3.
2 Gilbey, A., McNicholas, J., Gilbey, A., Rennie, A., Ahmedzai, S., Dono, J., Ormerod, E. (2005). Pet ownership and human health: A brief review of evidence and issues. British Medical Journal. 331, 1252-1254.
3 Sable, P. (1995). Pets, attachment, and well-being across the life cycle. Social Work; 40(3), 334-341.
4 Wells, D. L. (2007). Domestic dogs and human health : An overview. British Journal of Health Psychology, 12, 145–156. https://doi.org/10.1348/135910706X103284