A pet can be a great source of comfort, companionship and motivation for their owners. In many ways, pets can help us to live mentally healthier lives.

Pets and depression

Pets are also a great motivator for people. Dogs especially are great at encouraging owners to get exercise, and this can be beneficial for those suffering from depression. Pets can also have calming effects on their owner. Just by stroking, sitting next to or playing with a pet can gives owning a chance to relax and calm their minds. Caring for a pet also gives your day purpose and reward, and a sense of achievement. It also helps you feel valuable and needed.

Pets and socialising

Walking a dog often leads to conversations with other dog owners and this helps owners to stay socially connected and less withdrawn. People who have more social relationships and friendship tend to be mentally healthier.

Pets and loneliness

A pet is great companion. They give owners company, a sense of security and someone to share the routine of the day with. Pets can be especially valuable company for those in later life and living alone.

Pets and people in later life

People in later life experiencing typical life stresses can be comforted by a companion pet. It is thought that a dog can be a stress buffer that softens the effects of adverse events on a person. With an animal in the home, people with Alzheimer’s are thought to have fewer anxious outbursts.

Pets lower cortisol levels

The scientists recruited 249 college students and divided them into four groups:

  • In one group, people were free to spend time with cats and dogs for 10 minutes, stroking and playing with the animals.
  • Another group observed other people interacting with the animals while they were waiting for their turn.
  • Another group watched a slideshow of the animals.
  • The final group simply sat and waited in silence.

Pendry and Vandagriff also collected samples of the participants’ saliva and tested their cortisol levels both in the morning and after the intervention.Cortisol is a hormone that the body secretes in response to stress.

Pets and Autism

Sensory issues are common among children with autism. Sensory integration activities are designed to help them get used to the way something feels against their skin or how it smells or sounds. Dogs and horses have both been used for this purpose. Children with autism often find it calming to work with animals.

It has been claimed that in the case of people with autism, animals can reduce stereotyped behavior, lessen sensory sensitivity, and increase the desire and ability to connect socially with others. Resercher into this area needs to be carried out however.

Overall, the analysis revealed that the students who interacted with the animals had significantly lower cortisol levels after the intervention. These effects occurred regardless of whether the participants’ initial cortisol levels were very high or very low at the start of the study.

“Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone,” reports study co-author Pendry.

She adds, “We already knew that students enjoy interacting with animals, and that it helps them experience more positive emotions.”

What we wanted to learn was whether this exposure would help students reduce their stress in a less subjective way. And it did, which is exciting because the reduction of stress hormones may, over time, have significant benefits for physical and mental health.”

“Just 10 minutes can have a significant impact,” adds Pendry, but she and her colleagues now plan to examine the effect of a similar 4-week program, in which animals would hopefully help relieve stress. The preliminary results are promising.

This was the first study to involve college students and show reductions in levels of the stress hormone cortisol in a real life setting rather than a laboratory.