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By: Maggie Young

Your furry friend who shows up as your ever-present companion is more than just a pet, but a source of connectivity, playfulness and support. The pup waiting to snuggle on your couch after a long day, or the kitten playfully scurrying around your room bring more to your life than you may even realize.

Research has been looking at the relationship between humans and pets for years with conflicting evidence as it’s tough to separate out all of the variables that factor into well being and inherent characteristics of pet owners. Recently, researchers completed a systematic review of 17 studies with a narrative synthesis of a large chunk of past evidence to decipher how pets affect mental health. The verdict of the study? The quantitative aspects of the study came in a mixed bag of positive, negative and neutral data. However, the qualitative data spoke strongly of the intense connections between humans and their pets, and all of the different ways that pets provide these benefits, especially in the midst of dealing with any sort of mental health condition. The study highlighted some “themes” found in the evidence regarding how pets affect mental health.

Emotional Wellness

Pets were found to provide comfort, ease worries, and decrease feelings of loneliness. The study stated that it was found that there was a recurrent theme of strong connections with pets that were many times preferred over even human relationships. The source of affection and intuitive comforting they provide via physical warmth and touch and distractions from negative thoughts help elevate mood. The study also noted that pets provided unconditional love and trust that fostered owner self-acceptance. This unconditional positive relationship gives individuals emotional stability in a relationship, which bolsters their support network. Pets keep their owners in the present moment by nature, which helps keep worries and anxiety at bay.

How Having a Pet Can Benefit Your Health

More Social Interaction

Pet companions were found to provide more opportunities for social connection with friends and family, as well as the outside community. Dogs specifically increased interactions with other people that an individual wouldn’t have engaged with otherwise. The study listed other social benefits including more confidence to go into new social situations with their pet by their side, being more open to social activities in general, and making it easier for individuals to connect with others while in the presence of their pet.

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More Physical Activity

It’s no surprise that pets increase the amount of time spent outside, walking and improving overall mobility by nature of the care-giving tasks. Pets require care, which means that owners need to help with their needs and/or exercise them (depending on the pet!). This means that owners are forced to get up off the couch more often than if they didn’t have a pet.

Higher Sense of Self Worth

The study noted that pet owners experienced higher scores on scales that looked at how often individuals experienced meaningful activities in life. In general, pet owners were found to feel better about themselves. Pet owners, especially ones dealing with some sort of mental health condition, reported that pets brought them a sense of purpose, empowerment and identity. In a nutshell, people feel good about themselves for taking great care of their companions.

If you don’t own a pet, there are many ways that you can get pet time and reap some of the benefits.

Dog walking: There are many apps such as Rover and Wag! that connect you with pet owners needing someone to walk their pups. Bonus: some side money along with the mental health boost!

Pet sitting: You can also use Rover to seek out pet sitting gigs!

Fostering: Check your local dog shelters for fostering opportunities, which can be looked at as a trial run with a pet if you are unsure of going all in!

Volunteer at your local shelter: There are many opportunities to take care of all types of animals at shelters. Bonus: You may fall in love with an animal you didn’t even consider.

As with anything, negative aspects can occur, including not having a pet that is compatible with your lifestyle. It’s important to research and look at the temperament of the pet and the qualities that you need in a pet in order to ensure a happy relationship for all and to experience the powerful benefits.