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Does having a pet boost your mental health?

Dogs, cats and other pets may do more than just provide companionship. They may also help reduce stress and anxiety — and help boost brain power. Here’s what to know.

Feeling lonely, down or anxious? A pet might be the answer. Eighty-four percent of pet owners say that their pets have a mostly positive impact on their mental health, according to a poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association. In fact, most people consider their pets to be part of their family.

Why are pets good for mental health? According to the survey, they can add structure to your daily schedule, help you to be physically active, help increase social connections with others, help reduce stress and anxiety, and provide a calming presence.

Increasing social connections is particularly important in today’s world. Many of us live far away from our immediate family, says Philip Tedeschi, L.C.S.W. He’s a human-animal connection expert with Rover.com. He’s also director emeritus and founder of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection and a professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work.

“If you ask people about their pets, you’ll see that they describe them as some of the most reliable relationships that they have every day,” he explains.

Are dogs and cats good for your mental health? The answer is yes and yes, says Tedeschi.

Read on to learn more about how pets can help boost your mental health.

Did you know that you can see a mental health care provider by way of telehealth? Explore your plan options, or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730.  

8 reasons why pets may be good for your mental health

Here’s a closer look at why pets may help boost your mental health.

Reason #1. Pets may help ease stress.

“When you’re anxious, you activate the part of your brain that creates a stress response,” says Kerry McBroome, Psy.D. She is a psychologist in Brooklyn, New York. “Just the sound of woofs or meows is enough to calm this area of the brain,” she explains. “Even the sensation of petting a dog’s soft belly can have this effect.”

Reason #2. Pets may make you feel less lonely.

There is nothing like returning home after a long day to see a wagging tail. “Any time another being, whether it’s a human or a pet, greets you with positive emotion, it helps to take away any feelings of loneliness,” says McBroome. “Humans are meant to be social creatures. We are meant to spend most of our time with our fellow humans. If that doesn’t happen, we are still able to get some of those needs met through a furry friend.”

The social interaction between you and your pet also releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin. “When oxytocin is activated, you are more likely to be social and talkative. This makes you more likely to make friends as well,” explains Tedeschi.

Don’t have access to telehealth through your plan? We can help. Explore your telehealth options, or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730. 

Reason #3. Pets may provide structure to your day.

If you have recently retired or live alone, a pet can provide structure and consistency in your life. This could be a dog, cat or even a fish.

“If you normally find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, a pet’s schedule requires you to get up and move,” explains McBroome. “And once you are motivated to get up and move, your internal motivation kicks in. That keeps you going.”

Reason #4. Pets may keep you active.

“We know that people who live with companion animals, particularly dogs, tend to be more active. They also get out more,” says Tedeschi. Recent research found, for example, that pet owners are more likely to be physically active than people who don’t own pets.

Dogs are also a great way to connect with others. “If you walk a dog, you’re likely to have many more interactions with people than if you walked by yourself,” he says. “It is a good way to meet neighbors. It’s also an effective way to have social interactions. Both can improve your mental health.”

Reason #5. Pets may encourage you to play.

Whether it is a game of fetch or simply being silly together, furry pets may bring out your inner child. “There is a belief in our society that play is only for children. But adults need to play too, to keep them young,” says Tedeschi. “It’s also a good tool to help manage stress.”

Reason #6. Pets may help boost your productivity.

Work from home? You may find that you focus better with a pet by your side. Work in an office building? If it’s allowed, bring them in with you. Research has found that pets enhance workplace well-being and encourage collaboration.

Reason #7. Pets may beef up your brain power.

Pets may also be good for your brain health. If you live alone, having a pet may help in slowing cognitive decline, according to recent research. The researchers found that having pets helps reduce the rate of decline in verbal memory (the capacity to remember previously learned, written or spoken information). Pets also slowed the decline in something called verbal fluency. That’s the ability to move quickly from thoughts to words.

Reason #8. Pets may improve your heart health.

Pets don’t just benefit your brain. They may help your heart too. Dogs, in particular, may give you opportunities to get outside and exercise. If you walk or play with a pet regularly, it may also lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While pets are great, sometimes they are not enough to combat feelings of loneliness and depression. If not, it’s a good idea to talk to your primary care doctor about your options, whether that be prescription medication or talk therapy. They may be able to refer you to a mental health professional that can help.

Bonus: How do I keep my pet healthy?

Don’t forget that your pet needs to stay healthy, too. Learn about pet insurance options that could work for you.

Bottom line: Pets may play an important role in improving your physical health. And having one to care for and spend time with may also do wonders for your mental health. Of course, if you’re still struggling, it might be time to talk to a mental health professional. They can help get you on the path to feeling better.

Need to book a telehealth visit with a mental health therapist? Explore your telehealth options or contact a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730.   

This article contains information that is compiled by UnitedHealthcare or its subsidiaries. UnitedHealthcare does not represent all the information provided are statements of fact. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. “Americans’ pets offer mental health support to their owners.” March 1, 2024. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/News-room/News-Releases/Pets-Offer-Mental-Health-Support-to-Their-Owners

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How to stay healthy around pets and other animals.” May 5, 2023. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/keeping-pets-and-people-healthy/how.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fhealthypets%2Fhealth-benefits%2Findex.html

Frontiers in Public Health. “Pet’s influence on humans’ daily physical activity and mental health: a meta-analysis.” May 2023. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10262044/

Harvard Business Review. “The benefits of a pet-friendly workplace.” November 13, 2023. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2023/11/research-the-benefits-of-a-pet-friendly-workplace

JAMA Network Open. “Pet ownership, living alone, and cognitive decline among adults 50 years and older.” December 2023. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38147332/

UnitedHealthcare. “Pet insurance.” Retrieved from https://www.uhone.com/health-insurance/additional/pet-insurance Accessed April 5, 2024

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