Have you ever experienced the healing presence of animals? Perhaps you’ve noticed a drastic mood lift after playing with a puppy, or snuggling with a kitten. You’re not wrong to infer that being with cuddly animals improves your mood– in fact, multiple research studies have actually proven this point to be true! What you’ve experienced is known as the “Pet Effect,” coined by researchers at the Human Animal Bond Research Institute.
The “Pet Effect,” according to Mental Health America (MHA), is a phenomenon that bonds humans and animals and mutually provides many health benefits. Research demonstrates a myriad of these health benefits from developing bonds with animals, including alleviation of anxiety and depression, lowering of stress hormones, and reduction of risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease and Autism Spectrum Disorder. The Pet Effect, also known as the Human-Animal Bond, also demonstrates increased heart health, and overall greater happiness.
The benefits of the Pet Effect are mutually beneficial, as the animals that humans develop bonds with also experience better overall health. According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI), humans who bond with their pets are better equipped to take care of their pets. Bonded pet owners are also more likely to treat their pets with proper medical assistance (i.e. taking pets to the veterinarian), and are generally more in tune with their pets’ needs.
As the bond with animals increases physical human health, it also significantly improves mental health. As aforementioned, research (from institutions such as HABRI) has proven such effects as the reduction of anxiety and depression, along with the lowering of stress hormones. Listed below are a few of the most common mental health benefits that arise from developing positive emotional bonds with pets.
Reduces Anxiety and Depression
Studies indicate that owning a pet/having a significant bond with an animal alleviates anxiety, depression, stress, and feelings of loneliness. While modeling unconditional love, pets also provide a sense of stability and consistency that other humans can’t always exude, thus creating a sense of a healthy, stable bond without the fear of losing it. The same studies that show a reduction in anxiety and depression also indicate an increase in levels of oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is a chemical in the brain that’s released when experiencing emotional bonds– which is why it’s often referred to as the “love chemical.” Similar to dopamine and serotonin, it has been shown to improve moods and to increase general mental well-being.
Lowers Stress Levels
On the chemical level, bonding and interacting with animals (specifically pets) has been proven to decrease cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Studies have also shown that frequent time spent with pets lowers blood pressure, which is another contributing factor to reducing stress. Elevated levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with feelings of joy and happiness, bring calm and relaxation, rather than stress and tension.
Improves Social Stability
Owning a pet gives us a purpose– to take care of another besides ourselves– and makes us feel needed. It also decreases feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Especially for children, owning a pet teaches one to care for another, and how to interact properly. Although interactions with pets are far different from those with humans, an underlying empathy still teaches pet owners how to develop emotional bonds. For those who feel socially isolated (especially during the course of the pandemic), having a loyal companion is enough to keep oneself going. Having a pet, at the very least, provides owners with a companion, one they know they can trust and love unconditionally.