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PET TALK: Pets and your mental health

Wednesday 27 October 2021 | Written by Dr. Ellen McBryde | Published in Opinion, Pet Talk

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PET TALK: Pets and your mental health
Simple act of petting a friendly dog reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension. DAILY PAWS/21102506

As we head into Movember and shine a light on men’s health, in particular mental health, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to look into the effects our pets have on our overall health and well-being.

Recognition of the positive effects that animals can have on people isn’t new. Thirty years ago, researchers began investigating the physical health effects experienced when people interacted with animals. They found that the simple act of petting a friendly dog reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension – all physical signs of stress.

More recently, research has shown that petting or playing with an animal for as little as five minutes not only lowers the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, but also stimulates the release of the ‘feel-good’ hormones (serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin) that are associated with mood regulation and positive feelings. In fact, just making eye contact with your dog can stimulate oxytocin release and boost your mood!

As a result, animal assistance programmes are growing in popularity to take advantage of these positive effects (just like those organised locally by Horses of Rarotonga). And it’s not just dogs and horses. Even petting a turtle has been shown to relieve feelings of anxiety.

But what are some other positive effects of animal ownership on our health and well-being? On top of a reduction in stress, pet owners have been identified as having improved self-esteem and physical fitness, as well as reduced feelings of loneliness (through companionship) and a greater sense of belonging. Caring for a pet (even one as simple as a goldfish!) can help to build a sense of responsibility in children and provide security and routine. Animal attachment has also been shown to encourage social interaction and relationship building skills.

This all sounds pretty good so far, but pet ownership and animal care can come with practical and emotional burdens, such as financial pressures or the loss of a pet. Sometimes simply the responsibility of having a pet to take care of can take its toll. With this in mind, it’s important that we each consider our individual circumstances when making the decision to adopt a pet.

Many of us have experienced the joy of a dog greeting us when we arrive home, or a cat purring happily on our lap. The unconditional love that animals provide really can have a positive impact on our mental health and well-being. So don’t forget to give your pet a cuddle – it might just make your day!