All pets provide us with a great source of comfort, but did you know they can actually help us and our children live more mentally healthy lives?
Why are pets good for us?
Looking after a furry (or scaly) pet can help our mental well-being in many ways. Most pet owners will be able to tell you about the joys that their particular pet gives them. But often we are unaware of the psychical and mental health benefits that come along with sharing our lives with our pets, including:
- Helping us increase our physical activity. Dog owners are likely to take their dogs for a walk every day (or multiple times a day depending on their dog’s age and breed). This can be a nice fun way to fit some movement into your daily routine as a family.
- Providing companionship. Pets give us someone to share our day with. Caring for their needs helps us to feel needed and wanted.
- Teaching responsibility. Looking after a pet enables our children to foster a sense of independence and the ability to be responsible for another living thing, such as cleaning up after it, feeding it or simply spending time playing and interacting.
- Reducing anxiety. The companionship of our pets can offer comfort, build self-confidence and help ease anxiety. Pets tend to live in the moment, they don’t hold grudges or worry about tomorrow which in turn can help us become more mindful and enjoy the moment too.
- Helping us meet new people. Pets are a great talking point which can help us start conversations, meet new people and make new friendships. Dog owners often stop and talk to each other on walks and meet at training classes. But it’s not just dogs than can provide this support in getting us out there and meeting new people. Other pets are there to help in this department too by going into pet shops, attending shows, events, joining online communities or groups dedicated to our specific pet. If your child lacks confidence in social situations, pets can provide an easy way for them to interact with others too – and perhaps provides a good excuse to get away from a screen and into the fresh air!
- Adding routine to your day. Most pets require a daily routine of walking, feeding, exercising or caring for them in some way. This helps the pet feel more balanced and calmer, but also helps us humans too. By having a consistent routine, you give your family’s day a purpose and yourself a sense of achievement – including your child too!
Health Benefits of Pets
Pets can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. They help ease loneliness, offer us comfort and help us become more active.
Remember a pet doesn’t have to be a dog or a cat. A rabbit or Guinea pigs could be a good option if you would like a fluffy friend to cuddle with. Keeping birds can also encourage social interaction, as well as snakes and other reptiles, which can make great pets if you are looking for a more exotic companion. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and lower your pulse rate.
Did you know?
- Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.
- People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets.
- Playing with a dog, cat, or other pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
- Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
- Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
Benefit of Pets for Children
Children who grow up with pets learn responsibility, compassion and empathy from looking after them. In addition to this, they can:
- Ease separation anxiety in children when Mum or Dad is not around.
- Have a calming presence at home and provide a sense of security for children.
- Help the development of self-esteem by providing companionship and making the child feel needed and important.
- Find it easier to form relationships with others
- Help teach young children empathy and understanding.
- Talk to their pets without fear of judgement or rejection which can help build confidence.
- Help teach children responsibility of looking after something/someone
- Benefit from playing with a pet. It can be a source of calmness and relaxation, as well as a source of stimulation for the brain and body.
Some children with autism or special educational needs are better able to interact with pets than people. Children with Autism often rely on nonverbal cues to communicate, just like our pets do. Learning to connect with a pet may even help a child in their interactions with people.
- Pets can help children with learning disabilities learn how to feel calmer and cope better with their specific challenges.
- Playing and exercising with a dog or cat can help a child with special educational needs stay alert and attentive throughout the day. It can also be a great antidote to stress and frustration caused by their specific challenges.
What actually happens in the brain when we are around pets?
Pets can lower cortisol levels, the ‘stress hormone’, and provides some relief of depression, anxiety and social isolation. Some other neurotransmitters have been studied to identify how they are affected when we interact with our pets:
- Oxytocin – Oxytocin is one of our ‘feel good’ chemicals. It is produced in the hypothalamus and then transported to and released by the posterior pituitary gland at the base of the brain. Oxytocin relieves feelings of stress, and enhances a sense of trust and connection with others. When we stroke or cuddle with our pets our oxytocin levels rise which create a sense of calm. This is the same chemical reaction on the brain which happens when a mother holds her child. No wonder we feel a strong attachment to our pets and often think of them as part of the family.
- Dopamine – Dopamine has been called the ‘pleasure hormone’ because it is associated with the human experience of pleasure. Dopamine helps create a feeling of positivity and bonding. Being with your pet also releases dopamine in the brain which helps boosts both yours and your pet’s mood.
- Serotonin – Serotonin has a profound impact on mood. Petting or stroking our pets causes a spike in serotonin in the brain. This gives us sense of calm, reduces anxiety and promotes feelings of happiness. That makes your pet a type of natural antidepressant.
Is having a pet right for our family?
As tempting as it might be, this blog is NOT an advert for you to rush out and buy a new pet! Whilst the mental health and well-being benefits for us and our children are clear, it’s important that a relationship with any pet is based on mutual love and care. Of course, the benefit of having a pet in our family’s lives is only apparent when we have a genuine love for animals.
And even if you and your children love animals and want a pet to join your life, it is so important to understand everything that caring for specific pet entails before committing to them. This commitment will last throughout that animal’s lifetime, which could be 10-15 years – or more in some cases.
If you are ready to think about getting a pet, chat with your child together and consider:
- how much outdoor space you have
- how active you are
- how much time you and your family have to spend with your pet
- how much money you have for vet bills, insurance, food, toys, etc
Other Options than owning a pet
If owning your own pet is not possible for your family, there are other options. The simplest may be just spending time with a family member or friends’ pets. Going on dog walks with them, stroking their cat or cuddling their guinea pigs. You may know a family member or friend that you could offer help with their pets whilst they are away on holiday or at work.
Your family could connect or volunteer with a local charity (like The Cinnamon Trust) who help older people, or those with a health condition or disability, who can’t walk their dog as easily anymore.
Your family could also contact your local rescue centres to see what volunteering opportunities they have. You could consider fostering an animal with a rescue centre if you can have a pet on a short-term basis but can’t commit to one long-term
There are also a variety of different charities and organisation that offer trained therapy dogs and cats to visit children’s hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, hospices and schools.
If you would like to find out more about the opportunities for supporting pet charities with your child, visit: