If you’ve ever lived with a dog or a cat—or a hamster, fish, or reptile—you know how they can help keep you physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy.
Taking daily walks with Fido—especially out in Nature—can add years to your life. And a recent study shows that petting an animal provides positive sensory and tactile stimulation that helps release the feel-good hormone oxytocin…and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.1
Plus, a recent 12-year study of nearly 35,000 Swedish people found that single people who lived with a dog had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. And, overall, dog ownership was associated with a lower risk of death.2
Animals also provide social support. If you have pets, you’ve probably noticed the emotional support and self-esteem that comes from close interactions with animals.
And unlike some humans (ahem), pets can be attentive, responsive, predictable, and nonjudgmental. Not to mention, studies show that pets provide affection and emotional support during times of grief, stress, or separation.
This has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the pandemic—and the government response to it—created conditions to better understand just how dogs provide social support; protect against anxiety, depression, and stress; and boost happiness.
The purr-fect pandemic support
In 2020-21, during pandemic lockdowns, scientists from Nestlé Purina Research surveyed 768 dog owners and 767 people who were extremely interested in owning a dog in the future.3
Results showed that the dog owners had significantly less depression than the potential dog owners—perhaps because the owners felt their pets provided more social support. But both groups had about the same levels of anxiety and happiness.
Meanwhile, another survey conducted in 2020 reported that nearly 75 percent of pet owners “would not have been able to get through” the pandemic without their pet. A whopping 91 percent said their pets were a significant source of emotional support, and 94 percent said their pets had a positive effect on their family.4
And no, those pets don’t have to be land animals. One study found that people who own aquarium fish feel that their fish provide companionship and help them relax, too.5
Navigating the stress of pets
Of course, with all of the wagging tails, affectionate licks, purring, and overall companionship that comes along with pet ownership, there are some other things to consider as well. A few studies have observed that pet ownership may cause stress. Feeding and caring for a pet can be a financial hardship, for instance. (Remember to consider trips to the vet and monthly preventative treatments when analyzing how owning a pet may impact your financial situation.) There’s also the need to make arrangements for pet care when you’re away from home.
Plus, there may be stresses caused by neighbors or communities that don’t appreciate pets. However, navigating those restrictive and punitive regulations regarding pets could turn into a positive, depending on how you approach it. That leads me to a recent experience my wife and I had…
As you know, many communities are establishing dedicated dog parks (green spaces or beaches) where dogs can run freely. One was created as part of a new waterfront recreational area in my little town in Florida. Residents soon discovered that in addition to the social support provided by the dogs, regular gatherings at the dog park also provided opportunities for social support among the dog owners. In fact, the new park got so much use that the grass was gone within a year!
Our local group of dog owners, led by my wife, waged a campaign with the town to replant the grass—it was even featured on the front page of the local newspaper. The campaign got results, and I was able to personally thank the town mayor recently at the opening of our new natural healing center. Yet another way our pets can make us feel good!
So if you’re still struggling with turmoil created by the pandemic, weigh the pros and cons of adopting a pet. Because as study after study shows—along with my own personal experiences—having a pet at home is a great investment for your overall health during the pandemic, and beyond.
- “Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels in Dog Owners and Their Dogs Are Associated with Behavioral Patterns: An Exploratory Study.” Front Psychol. 2017 Oct 13;8:1796.
- “Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death – a nationwide cohort study.” Sci Rep 7, 15821 (2017).
- “Depression, anxiety, and happiness in dog owners and potential dog owners during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.” PLoS One. 2021 Dec 15;16(12)
- “Pet dogs during the time of COVID.” Fido of Fort Collins; 2020.
- “Experiences of the occupation of keeping fish as pets.” Br. J. Occup. Ther.2009, 72, 349–356.