Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/7/2022
Ask any dog mom, self-described cat lady or other pet parent whether their fur babies make life better (and well, if their pets help with mental health), and you’ll get the same answer: Yes. Even the pets that chew, scratch and shred furniture and other possessions hold special places in owners’ hearts.
Pets and mental health: It’s real.
Pets are great companions for decreasing stress, keeping you healthy, and showing you unconditional love, and they may very well help you deal with anxiety, too.
While there’s not a ton of research exploring why Mr. Mittens is a boon to your mental health, studies do show that a companion animal can be of great benefit to your mental and physical health — and that includes how you regulate anxious feelings.
Can pets help you cope with anxiety and depression? They can — and here’s how and why.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), research into the beneficial relationship between pets and mental health is relatively new. In fact, studies on pets and mental health have been going on for just over a decade.
During that time, however, scientific studies have shown that interacting with pets can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, and can help with social issues like loneliness by increasing a sense of social support.
What’s more, pets can boost your mood, help you get more physical activity, and find a sense of calm — though that may depend on the animal. (Hello barking pups.)
You’re not going to get much exercise trying to walk a fish, for instance, too, but they may offer a calming distraction when you’re stressed. Likewise, an active dog may not induce a household sense of calm in the mornings, but those walks are certainly going to get you up, out and moving.
Exactly why pets and animals can generally help with mental health issues like anxiety is an unanswered question. There’s not a firm link between mental health and a shedding husky, for instance, and the NIH says that relationships between owners and pets are highly subjective, because both individual people and pets can differ largely in personality, needs and support functions.
Even the bond you feel with your pet may differ greatly from that of a friend and her pet. We’re not saying people don’t snuggle their snakes like they do their dogs, of course — it’s just that the degree of (and the benefit of) a bond can vary.(It’s much the same with any relationship.)
What we do know is that animals can generally serve a role of comfort and support for people in need.
Dogs are well known for their therapeutic benefits, but studies have also shown a classroom guinea pig to be helpful in calming chidlrens’ emotions. Nursing homes may employ dogs to help with isolation in aging patients for similar reasons.
The point is that there are a variety of ways an animal can be of benefit to your anxiety, but these animals are also classified differently depending on what benefits of pets are present. This brings us to one of the most misunderstood elements of the “service and support animal” conversation: what is and isn’t protected by law.
Within the “animals for health” space, there are some official terms that are recognized as having certain protections and purposes, like service animals. Service animals, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), are dogs that have been trained to perform tasks for individuals with disabilities.
Dogs may be trained to alert when blood sugar is low for a diabetic, to help people with autism spectrum disorder with meltdowns, or remind people to take certain medications. They may also be trained to detect things like seizures to help a person remain safe.
Therapy and emotional support animals are not protected by the service animal banner, however, and though some city and state governments may have laws protecting these animals, they are not protected at the federal level.
That said, the ADA may make distinctions between emotional support and “psychiatric service” animals — for example, if an animal has been trained to alert when anxiety levels spike or respond to signs of an anxiety attack, they would qualify as a service animal.
What this means for you is that, while hugging your dog may help you cope with anxiety, they would need specific training to qualify as a service animal at a level where you’re protected to bring them with you everywhere.
While that training doesn’t need to be done professionally, you should consult with experts to see how and where it can be done properly (and if you’re capable of doing it yourself ).
Would having a companion (cuddly or otherwise) help you better cope with and overcome your anxiety or other mental health issues? It depends.
As mentioned above, animals can provide a variety of benefits that can help people with a number of mental health issues, including anxiety. Dogs are known to show emotional sensitivity, for example, and can sense when their support is needed — sometimes much better than people can.
But the wrong pet might also exacerbate mental health problems.
A dog with its own fear of social interactions who becomes anxious going outside might cause you additional anxiety about socializing and social relationships, for example. Or a pet that’s not so cuddly might, in theory, amplify your sense of social isolation.
You might have the wrong pet for your needs, or your pet might not have the right personality for the job. If you’re considering adopting a pet for your mental health needs or as an anxiety treatment, it’s wise to talk to a therapist before visiting the shelter. This is for the animal’s wellbeing, too. You’ll want to provide a safe and loving home, after all.
Mental illness is a problem for many people, and whether it’s anxiety or something else, the mental health benefits of owning a pet seem promising. There are even physical health pluses to consider, like the heart-health benefits and exercise you’ll get from walking a dog or playing with a cat.
That said, there are other ways to treat anxiety besides therapy animals.
Online therapy is an effective process for working through the thoughts and emotions that cause mental health issues in our everyday lives. Depression and anxiety can generally respond well to many therapeutic techniques, but experts highlight cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as one of the most effective ways to address anxiety in a therapeutic environment.
CBT is a process for rewiring your brain to mitigate anxiety by considering your thoughts and noticing patterns that are unhealthy, which helps you learn to control disordered thinking over time.
A healthcare professional might also prescribe medication for depression or anxiety, which will typically consist of antidepressants.
Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (also called SSRIs) are well tolerated and effective in helping you manage the levels of serotonin in your brain (and thereby your moods).
However, changes to your lifestyle, as well as exercise and dietary modifications can positively impact your mental health, sometimes even when other options are less effective.
We certainly don’t want to undervalue the role of pets in human health, mental or otherwise. (And it’s always a great thing to give a shelter pet a loving forever home.) The fact is that the love, responsibilities, and activities associated with good pet ownership might be the kind of motivating factors a person needs to push themselves to get better.
But journeying to mental health isn’t as simple as pushing yourself, and it may require support from more than a pet.
Support from a healthcare professional or other mental health professional is key to dealing with anxiety in a safe and effective way.
Visiting a shelter is a great idea. But you can also adopt healthful habits — and ask a mental health professional about your concerns and mental health issues. In fact, speaking with a healthcare professional about your mental health first is paramount. That way both you and your furry new companion will have the best chance of a happily ever after, together.