Americans love pets. According to the American Pet Products Association, the U.S. is home to more than 77 million dogs and 93 million cats. Sixty-two percent of our country’s households own a pet, and some of these pet owners are living with mental illnesses. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that at least 26.2 percent of adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. Major depressive disorder affects 6.7 percent, while dysthymic disorder affects 1.5 percent. About 2.6 percent has bipolar disorder, 1.1 percent has schizophrenia, and 18.1 percent suffer from anxiety disorders.
Fortunately, pet ownership can help mitigate the effects of these mental illnesses. And bonding with a furred or feathered companion is equally beneficial for people who are not facing mental health challenges.
The health benefits of pets for those with mental illnesses are many:
Pets prevent loneliness and isolation
When you’re depressed or anxious, you may not feel like leaving the house—even to be with your friends. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which only make your symptoms worse. The presence of a pet can make a world of difference. They offer unconditional love and affection, never pressure, and never judge. One study found that pet owners are happier, healthier and better adjusted as a result. Another reported that pet owners have greater self-esteem and experience more feelings of belonging.
Pets lower stress levels
Stress increases the symptoms of most mental disorders, yet managing a mental illness can also be stressful. This creates a vicious cycle—but spending time with a pet can help break it. One study found that spending time with an animal reduces our bodies’ production of cortisol, a stress hormone, while increasing production of serotonin and dopamine, which lead to feelings of happiness and relaxation. Another reported that people with pets have lower blood pressure than those without.
Pets encourage activity
Exercise is important to mental health. Whether you suffer from depression, anxiety or even insomnia, being more active can ease your symptoms. A dog is the perfect pet to get you out of the house—providing you with a reason to get up, get dressed, and get outside for fresh air every day. Taking walks and playing fetch with a canine companion makes it easier to get the 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity three to five times a week the Centers for Disease Control recommend.
Pets help to establish routines
When you’re dealing with a mental illness—especially an anxiety disorder—a sense of stability is important. Without it, you may have days where just caring for yourself seems overwhelming. Fortunately, caring for a pet will help you establish a routine. Whether you have a cat, dog, bird or fish, it will need food, water and interaction at the same time every day. And while you’re taking care of your pet, you can better manage your own needs as well.
Are you living with a diagnosable mental illness? How has having a pet relieved your symptoms and enriched your lives? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments.