It’s official: Pets are good for mental health -- an expert explains why

Animals are good for mental health, especially during a pandemic.

A dog with their person.
A dog with their person. (pasja1000 from Pixabay.)

In September 2020, Katie McPherson took her dog Rex to the Jacksonville Humane Society.

She wasn’t dropping him off -- he’s a Humane Society alum, and they were back for training. At 80 pounds, Rex tended to take McPherson on walks that felt more like she was being dragged behind a pickup truck, so she registered him for some one-on-one training sessions to work on leash manners.

“My end goal, once hospitals can safely allow unlimited visitors again, is for Rex to become a certified pet therapy dog so we can visit pediatric patients who could really use a Scooby Doo-sized kiss,” McPherson said.

During one of the classes, the trainer took the two outside to practice walking past distractions, toward which Rex might try to pull McPherson.

“We looked for volunteers walking adoptable dogs, but strangely, couldn’t find any,” McPherson said. “The trainer mentioned the Humane Society had very few animals in-house because so many people are now working from home, and therefore, able to adopt and take care of pets.”

Comfort during COVID

Maybe it’s because McPherson was there with therapy dog goals in mind, or because animals have always been so good for her own mental health, but she thought, perhaps so many critters had found homes during COVID-19 because people need extra comfort.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says pets help us get outside to exercise more, prevent feelings of loneliness, and can help us have more social interactions.

Dr. Lori Vallelunga, a clinical psychologist at Baptist Behavioral Health, spoke with McPherson and answered a few questions about how pets can boost our mental health.

Can simply owning a pet benefit your mental health?

“Pets do not have to be trained to recognize human emotional expression,” Vallelunga said. “Thousands of years of domestication for dogs, for example, has made them highly attuned to our emotional and facial expressions and behavior. Research has shown pets can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and also ease loneliness. They encourage us to be more active and have more fun. They bring joy to our lives and show us unconditional love, which makes us all feel better. Pets have even been shown to help people manage long-term mental health conditions like chronic depression or bipolar disorder. Animals even help us socially, facilitating meeting new people and aiding in building social networks and friendships.”

Are pets especially helpful for mental health during the coronavirus pandemic?

“Pets have consistently been found to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness,” Vallelunga said. “Scientific research in the area of human-animal interactions is relatively new, but some studies have shown benefits to stress and mood. Pets encourage activity, exercise and play, all of which are necessary when under stress, such as from the pandemic. (Pets) have a calming effect on people and tend to bring joy even when the outside world is uncertain or scary. Because domesticated animals live in the moment, they help us with living in the present, being mindful, and reducing worry or anxiety about the future.”

Are certain types of pets more beneficial for mental health than others?

“The short answer is no,” Vallelunga said. “Most research on pets has focused on traditional domesticated pets, like dogs and cats. Pets ranging from fish to guinea pigs have been studied and have been found to offer benefits to our mental health. The best pet for a person depends upon the issues he or she is dealing with and how the pet can help. For example, if you need a pet to help motivate you to exercise, a fish would not be a good match, but an active dog might be great. If you need a pet to help calm a child with autism, a guinea pig might work well, but a cat that does not like to be stroked would be a poor choice.”

Vallelunga added that dogs in particular have been found to be the most helpful animal for people who are experiencing depression.

If you’re looking for a pet to help you with a specific condition or need, do a little research on the pet’s personality, needs, and any symptoms the medical community already knows the animal can improve.

“Dogs and cats are great support for children with ADHD, and dogs and horses have been found to be calming for people with autism,” Vallelunga said. “Although more research is needed, it has been noted that for people with autism, for example, animals can lessen sensory sensitivity and increase the desire and ability to connect socially with others.”

If you are experiencing added stress from the pandemic, or feel you may need support to manage your mental health, call 904-376-3800 to make an appointment with a provider at Baptist Behavioral Health.