70% of US households have at least one pet and most of us view our companion animals as valued members of our families. We love them, we share our homes, our food, and our lives with them. And it turns out that they give back - in spades. Not only do our companion animals love us back and provide friendship, joy, and fun - but it turns out that they can help reduce stress and anxiety too. And by the way, a pet doesn’t have to be a cat or dog - rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, even reptiles can also provide stress relief. In this article, we’ll discuss the science of this human-animal bond, and explain why it's so beneficial.
Multiple research studies confirm the benefits of companion animals
The human-animal bond is defined as “the mutually beneficial relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the well-being of both.” Studies show an increase in oxytocin levels in the brains of both humans and animals when they interact positively with each other, and it may be that this explains the neuroscience of the bond.
Taking this a step further, research has found that “pets are able to provide unique emotional support as a result of their ability to respond to their owners in an intuitive way, especially in times of crisis and stress.” Another study showed that the presence of a companion animal “buffers against the negative consequences of stress.” Yet another study on military veterans showed significant findings for the “benefits of animal companionship for veterans with PTSD, including effects on reducing feelings of loneliness, depression, worry and irritability, and increased feelings of calmness.”
How do companion animals help reduce stress?
One of the reasons for these beneficial effects is that companion animals fulfill the basic human need for touch. Intuitively, we know that patting or hugging an animal - a form of sensory stress relief - can calm and soothe us. And, animals tend to live in the moment — they don’t worry about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Therefore, they can help us become more mindful and to appreciate the present moment with less worry.
In addition, companion animals help us in the following ways:
- Increase exercise and play. Taking a dog for a walk or hike - or even playing with a cat in the house - are fun and rewarding ways to fit daily activity into your schedule. In fact, studies have shown that dog owners are far more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements. And the more exercise and activity you get, the less stress you’ll feel.
- Keep us connected. Pets can be a great way to feel part of a community of “dog people” or “cat people”, for example, and can help spark conversations and meet new people in pet stores, clubs, or training classes. Staying social and feeling connected is a great way to reduce stress.
- Provide a sense of security and calm. The presence of a companion animal at home can help provide a sense of security, ease separation anxiety in kids, and make us feel important - therefore helping to maintain a positive self-image.
- Add structure and routine to the day. Most pets require a regular feeding, cleaning, and exercise schedule. Having a consistent routine keeps our pets balanced and calm—and works the same way for us, too. Having a pet to care for makes us get out of bed in the morning, no matter how bad the day may seem.
Animals in therapy
Companion animals can be a valuable complement to regular therapy for individuals dealing with anxiety or depression. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that animal-assisted intervention may prove a good complementary option for trauma and other mental health issues. This study found that ‘therapy animals’:
- can act as a comforting reminder that all is calm and safe,
- act as a base for mindful experiences in the present, and
- elicit positive emotions and warmth.
To this end, you can find many successful therapy animal programs which visit hospitals, retirement homes, hospice centers, nursing homes, and schools. If this is something you might be interested in, a behavioral health specialist is a good place to start to find out more about these programs and to learn if a companion animal might provide stress relief for you.
If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of stress or anxiety, consider consulting a behavioral health professional
If you’re a client, request an appointment online or call our live support for assistance in scheduling care today. Our mental health professionals understand how to recognize and treat stress and anxiety, and can help explore animal-assisted interventions. If you’re a behavioral health provider looking to join our network, see all the benefits and learn how to apply here.