November 15, 2023

Understanding and Improving Mental Health With Pets

By Emma Parkhurst, USU Extension Assistant Professor

Man Petting Dog

Mental health – while many of us have a general idea of what it is, it can be helpful to have a reminder of everything it includes so we have a better understanding of how to improve it. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. The state of our mental health can determine how we cope with stress or life challenges, connect with others, and make healthy choices. It also impacts the thoughts we have, the feelings or emotions we experience, and how we act. It’s also important to acknowledge that our mental health is not separate from our physical health. Good mental health can positively impact our physical health, such as having a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive issues, insomnia, and more (National Alliance on Mental Health: Hearts + Minds). Unfortunately, that also means our physical health can worse when our mental health struggles.

The goods news is that there is a multitude of evidence-based strategies available to improve our mental health. Common strategies include exercise, eating nutritious foods, maintaining connections with others, and even getting quality sleep. One approach that I am particularly fond of is companionship through pets.

Whether you consider yourself a cat or a dog person, research says caring for a pet can positively impact our mental health. Pets provide a sense of companionship and are typically considered to be important and valued members of the family. According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, the relationship between pets and people can lead to enhanced social support, emotional well-being, and overall well-being. Rachel Morse, Oklahoma State University Extension mental health specialist, also shared that “research has shown that pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, tended to be less fearful and were more extroverted.” Additional benefits include:

  • Less stress related to work: studies show that pets in the workplace help reduce stress and improve employee satisfaction.
  • Anxiety management: the companionship provided by a pet can ease anxiety.
  • More physically active: pets provide a reason to get outside and get active, which is positively associated with a better mood, sleep, and overall mental health.
  • Sense of togetherness: the relationship with a pet can help reduce feelings of isolation. Studies show that when owners see, touch, or interact with their animals, they experience a sense of joy, nurturing, and happiness.

If you are not a pet owner but consider yourself an animal lover, there are ways to experience the positive benefits despite not having a pet of your own.

  • Visit family or friends that do have pets.
  • Consider volunteering at a local animal shelter.
  • Look into animal therapy programs, such as equine (horse) therapy.
  • Sign yourself up as a pet sitter or walker.