Psychological Benefit of Owning a Dog
Anyone who owns a pet understands that there are many important benefits to that pet and owner relationship, and researchers have long known that there are some profound psychological advantages. Studies going back almost 30 years show that there are many physiological changes that occur when you interact with a friendly dog including lower blood pressure, slowed heart rate, and relaxed muscles.
Since then, animals have become important in many mental health therapies. Among the most common is the use of dogs as emotional support partners. It is now well established that dogs reduce stress in a variety of ways that can ameliorate anxiety and other mental health issues.
Most people realize that there is a pleasurable response for you and the dog when you pet it, but few understand the complex chemical interplay that is occurring. This kind of interaction produces the hormone oxytocin which is the same hormone instrumental in bonding mothers to infants.
Oxytocin is made in the hypothalamus and is released during sex, lactation, and childbirth. It plays a key role in emotional bonding and social recognition. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone” because it rises in people who are romantically aroused.
Oxytocin also appears to be important in stress responses. One 2006 study of mammalian voles found that if they were given oxytocin, their anxiety, depression, and cardiac stress levels all declined. Other studies indicate that this hormone may be important in partner loyalty because it stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain.
Playing with a dog will promote oxytocin production in both the human and the pet. It is enough to merely make eye contact to initiate this neurochemical pathway. This positive feedback is why people bond so readily with dogs and why they are such good emotional support animals.
This hormone may play a key role in childhood anxiety mitigation. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of 643 children found that 21 percent without dogs tested positive for anxiety while only 12 percent with dogs tested positive.
Our Role as Pet Owners
In addition to the biochemical processes that occur when we interact with dogs, we also derive psychological benefits from being responsible pet owners. It is important for people to feel needed even if that feeling comes from a pet. Caring for others can provide meaning and purpose that can boost self-esteem.
Although this kind of psychological boost is more obvious with a pet like a dog that can return the affection, it has been shown in other owner and pet relationships. One 2016 study revealed that elderly people who were given crickets to take care of experienced an increase in mood during the course of this care.
It may seem obvious, but it is important to recognize that we enjoy companionship. A host of research supports the idea that having an animal companion produces emotional benefits including
- Higher self-esteem
- Less loneliness
- More conscientious
- More extroverted
- Less fearful
- More physically fit
Not only can pets boost our mood and mental health, but they also provide a buffer against negative emotions. A study of 97 undergraduates found that pets could mitigate feelings of rejection. In fact, the study participants did not even need to interact with the pet to experience this encouragement; just writing about their pet was enough to boost their mood.
One key benefit of having a pet is their immersion at the moment. Because they do not worry about the past or future, and they are so playful and carefree, they provide powerful examples of mindfulness.
Pets as Therapies for Mental Illness
Given the many positive effects that pets have on people, it is hardly surprising that several mental health therapies involving pets have been developed. A 2016 study from the University of Manchester that included 54 patients with illnesses like schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD found that having a pet improved illness symptoms.
Not only did pets distract these patients from suicidal thoughts and auditory hallucinations, but they also improved their self-worth, sense of identity, and personal meaning. Just as importantly, pets also provided a sense of control, security, and routine. One of the study’s authors said that pets offer unconditional support and validation that can’t be found in family or social relationships.
It should also be noted that pets compel us into healthy habits. A prime example of this is how having a dog requires us to take the animal for walks on a regular basis. This not only forces us to leave the confines of our homes, but it also immerses us in nature which boosts our mood.
Furthermore, we must get into the habit of feeding, grooming, and medically treating our pets. That means we must remain attentive to their needs and behaviors. This requires a measure of physical activity and scheduling that also benefits the owner. If your pet requires walking in the morning, then you will need to adjust your schedule to accommodate their needs.
If you are grooming your pet on a regular basis, this usually translates into better self-care as well. Pet owners who must maintain the bodies and appearances of their pets also tend to take better care of themselves. For people with chronic health conditions, this means that they are more likely to follow their doctor’s orders and take the initiative in caring about their health.
If there is one very unhealthy habit of mentally ill people, it is a tendency to isolate themselves. Having a pet like a dog not only provides a positive social interaction, but it also helps bolster relationship building with other people. Dogs especially follow human cues, so they help nurture emotional development which helps kids make friends easier.
Dogs often require walks and playing with other dogs. These interactions provide important opportunities to socialize with neighbors and other pet owners. These chance meetings can quickly grow into friendships that offer emotional support, validation, and personal enjoyment.