It’s no secret that our pets make us happy. We all love being bombarded with animal attention as soon as we walk through the front door, and even a cute pet photo can be enough to brighten our mood on a crummy day. But the connections we feel to our furry friends run even deeper than that! May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s a well-documented fact that pets have a lot to say in this conversation. So today we’re talking about our pets, our mental health, and the amazing links that exist between them.
Pet ownership encourages all sorts of wonderful improvement to our behaviors and our routines, but we’ll start even more basic than that: hormones! Hormones are chemicals that act as our body’s messengers. They can have a huge impact on our physical and mental health, and our pets can have a huge impact on our hormones!
Spending time around our pets can trigger releases of the feel-good hormone dopamine, and simple eye contact with our dogs can be enough to release the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin. And on the flip side, spending time with pets can lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that contributes to stress and anxiety. So when cuddling up with your dog makes you feel better after a long day at the office, it’s not just in your head- it’s in your endocrine system as well!
We also owe a lot to endorphins, a group of hormones that are basically your body’s natural opioids (without the nasty side effects). One reliable way to trigger a rush of endorphins is through exercise, and just a few minutes of activity a day can bring about improvements in your physical and mental health. Even if you don’t have the time or the energy to hit the gym, a ten minute walk with your canine companion can still be enough to get those endorphins flowing!
Taking your dog out for a walk can also be a great chance for socialization, for you and your pup alike! While we all know socialization is important for our dogs, it’s just as important for us humans. Face-to-face socialization with others has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression, especially in individuals over 50 (mental health matters at every age!). So while you might think your trips to the dog park are just for your pup’s benefit, think again! Even short conversations with other dog owners can provide a boost to your mental state.
Of course, a lot more goes into owning a pet than cuddles and occasional walks in the park. They need to be fed, groomed, exercised and played with regularly, and require lots of attention and affection. While these responsibilities can seem daunting, especially if you’re already struggling to keep up with the other responsibilities in your life, the two can actually go hand in hand. NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, find that taking care of another creature can improve pet owners’ sense of self-worth and their confidence in their ability to take care of themselves. Pet ownership also tends to come with routines, and building a routine to take care of your pet can help you stick to your own self-care routines as well. Not to mention, maintaining a regular routine is shown to help improve sleep! Who doesn’t love that?
Even now, we’re only beginning to understand the links between animals and mental health. New studies are coming out every day exploring these connections further, and the more we discover the more we can find ways to take advantage of these effects. Animal Assisted Therapy is becoming increasingly popular as a supplement to standard therapy regimens, while new studies are focusing on the impact animals might have on the development of children, especially those with certain conditions such as ADHD or autism.
So our pets are pretty cool, huh? But while they love us unconditionally and brighten our days just by being there, we know they can’t do everything. If you’re struggling with mental health and need help or guidance, don’t be afraid to reach out! Mental Health America has put together a wonderful guide that can help you figure out where to start, and can make the process of finding help a little less daunting. And if you won’t do it for our sake, then consider doing it for your pets’. We know it’s what they want.
On a personal note…
As veterinary professionals, Mental Health Awareness Month is a cause close to our hearts. 1 in 6 veterinarians will consider suicide at some point in their career, and the number of veterinarians experiencing extreme psychological distress has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. Not One More Vet is a nonprofit organization that aims to address the growing mental health crisis in the veterinary industry through education, outreach, peer support, and grant programs. Visit their website to learn more, make a charitable donation, or get involved as a volunteer.