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10 Ways Animals Improve Mental Health


More and more, animals are becoming a part of people’s lives. According to a Harris Poll, more than 3 in 5 American households have pets. That’s 62% of families have one or more dogs, cats, birds, or pets like snakes, turtles, lizards, tarantulas, or any of the multitude of other non-traditional animals.

So how long have animals been in relationship with humans?

Researchers estimate that dogs first became domesticated between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago. In the beginning, one can imagine that these dogs provided assistance with hunting, protection, and a warning signal to alert humans to danger.

Pet animals have practical uses. The  expression “it’s a three dog night” comes from the notion that it was so cold one needed three dogs to sleep with to keep warm.  Cats hunt mice to protect grain. Goats have been utilized to clear brush. Even rats have been trained to detect land mines. 

But, domesticated animals or pets provide more than practical help, as any pet owner will tell you. I’ve listed ten ways that pets improve mental health. If you have anything to add to the list, please comment below.

Here are ten ways that pets improve mental health.

  1. The act of stroking an animal has a calming effect and reduces anxiety. The softness of fur and the warmth of their skin is calming. Some studies have shown that petting an animal lowers blood pressure, too.
  2. A dog can make you get out of bed to take it on a walk, which has the advantage of both exercise and motivation to get moving. The exercise of walking increases endorphins which makes you feel good.
  3. Pets provide unconditional love. They don’t care if you haven’t showered, if you have a bad hair day, or if the house is a mess. Their love and affection are consistent. They ask for very little and love a great deal.
  4. Caring for something reminds you to care for yourself. If you’re going to go on a walk, you’ll get dressed and brush your hair. You may try to stay healthy for your animal’s sake, knowing they depend on you. Your dog insists on being fed and watered, which reminds you to eat and drink.
  5. Pets are fun. They’re fun to watch, to play with, to engage with. Parrots talk and whistle. Dogs chase and roll and learn tricks. Cats leap on the wall, trying to capture the laser dot.
  6. Animals give you something to talk about. Are you unsure of what to say in a situation? Ask someone about their pets, and tell them about yours. People love to talk about their pets almost as much as they love to talk about their kids, and sometimes more.
  7. Pets help you make friends. Dog people gather at dog parks. Bird lovers go to bird conventions. All types of pet lovers volunteer at animal shelters. Pets are a great icebreaker too. Taking your dog on a walk often leads to interactions with others. And commenting on someone else’s pet can be the start of a friendship.
  8. Helping animals can increase self-esteem. There are many places that need animal lovers to volunteer. Rescues, animal shelters, and wildlife centers can all use help. Even food pantries are in need of food for people’s pets. Giving of your time and energy will make you feel better about yourself and is something you can look forward to. It even looks good on a resume!
  9. Pets help those who are sick, sad, or lonely. All sorts of animals can be certified as therapy animals. Therapy animals go into hospitals, schools, retirement homes, and even libraries to help uplift people’s mood, provide a listening ear to help kids read, and be a much needed distraction to an otherwise monotonous day.
  10. Animals just make you feel good. A much needed lick on the face, a cat purring on your lap, petting a rabbit, watching fish, and holding a hamster are wonderful. Pets listen without judgement and without criticism. Hugging a dog and crying into his fur help release stress.

Even if you don’t own an animal, you can reap the benefits of one by visiting a shelter to walk the dogs or hold the cats. You can hang out with a friend who has pets. You could go bird watching or swim with the dolphins or go to a zoo.

Animals cannot replace medication that’s needed for  mental health problems or psychotherapy for significant problems, but they can definitely help in many ways. This list is only a small part of the roles animals can play in your life. Opening your home to nonhuman creatures will forever change your life in a myriad of positive, interesting, and wonderful ways.

photo from Shutterstock

10 Ways Animals Improve Mental Health

Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. She works with individuals and couples, and specializes in relationship counseling. She's now offering online counseling for residents of Ohio. Stay Connected . Follow her on twitter; and connect with her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Harmon, J. (2016). 10 Ways Animals Improve Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Mar 2016
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