Most of us love dogs. In fact, 63% of households own a dog, according to the 2019-2020 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA). This has steadily increased over the years, and was helped by a 30% jump in pet adoptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Insurance Research Council’s October 2020 report.
There are so many benefits of having a dog. Dogs give us unconditional love and snuggles, and they also help our health in a variety of ways, especially by motivating us to exercise, by walking them. But did you know that pets help improve not just your physical health, but your mental health, too?
You may have heard about emotional support animals, often seen providing comfort and emotional support to owners on airplanes and in other public places. Or even psychiatric service dogs, which are specially trained to help people with mental health issues.
The good news is that your family dog can also provide many mental health benefits.
Read on for science-backed ways that pooches help reduce anxiety, stress, loneliness, and more.
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1. Decreases anxiety
“Dogs provide unconditional love, and are a safe harbor when people are in distress,” says Leslie Sinn, DVM, DACVB, of Behavior Solutions, which helps pet owners with animal behavior issues. A variety of research shows that dogs help people relax and become less anxious.
2. Benefits kids with ADHD
Dogs can have a calming influence. In a 2015 study, children who received cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) with canine-assisted intervention experienced a larger decrease in the severity of ADHD symptoms. Social skills improved, and difficult behavior was reduced.
3. Lowers stress for college students
Dorm life isn’t just one big party. College students have always experienced a high level of stress, due to the demands of studying, getting a job and even getting too little sleep. Inspired by “Pet the Stress Away” programs on college campuses, researchers at Washington State University studied 249 students, some of whom interacted with cats and dogs. The results were extremely paw-sitive. The group that interacted with the animals had a significant decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone. Even more interesting? Stress levels decreased after only 10 minutes.
4. Lowers stress for kids
Several studies show that dogs lower stress levels in children. One study showed that after being exposed to something stressful, brief, unstructured interactions with dogs decreased kids’ anxiety. Another study showed that when a dog was present during a physical examination, children had larger decreases in arterial pressure, heart rate and behavioral distress. In other words, they were less stressed.
5. Lowers stress for everyone
Having a pet allows us to fulfill one of our most basic needs—the human need for touch. But that’s just the beginning of the benefits of owning a dog. In addition to research showing that just petting a dog lowers stress, a study showed that cuddling, playing and petting Rover increases the level of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which is the same hormone that helps bond moms to babies.
6. Decreases children’s anxiety
“Animals don’t judge. I think that’s one of the things they do best,” says Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, of Veterinary Behavior Consultations. “For example, when a child is learning to read, and reads to a dog or a cat, they might be more comfortable, because no one is correcting them on the pronunciation,” she says. One study measured the effect of children when reading to dogs. It found that anxiety levels of children were lower when reading to dogs than when they weren’t reading to dogs, as measured by a decrease in blood pressure. Dogs may also help lessen the anxiety of kids in other situations. In a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the anxiety levels of 643 children at their annual pediatric doctor visit were analyzed. The results showed that the anxiety levels for kids with dogs in the home was 12%, vs. 21% for those without dogs.
7. Helps older folks feel better
As we get older, our friends and family might move away or even pass away, physical limitations may prevent activities and it may become harder to socialize. That’s why having a pet is so important to older adults. In fact, one study found a variety of benefits for community-dwelling older adults who owned pets: they provided companionship, gave a sense of purpose and meaning, reduced loneliness, and increased socialization.
8. Reduces loneliness
In addition to being your buddy in the house and on the go, your dog can even help you make new friends. “Dogs are social magnets,” says Sinn. “They can help anyone meet people, but they are especially helpful with people who have problems engaging with others.” Case in point: One study showed that dogs help people with intellectual disabilities have social encounters, since more people talk to them when they have dogs.
Related: 30 Best Mental Health Apps
9. Improves mood
It’s hard to be sad when you’re hanging out with Rover. Several studies confirm that we feel better when we’re with our dogs. One example, from the University of Missouri-Columbia, shows that participants who stroked their dogs for a few minutes experienced a release of mood-boosting hormones, including oxytocin, serotonin and prolactin.
Doesn’t it feel great coming home to a wagging tale and a joyful pet? Science confirms that we feel a sense of wellbeing from having pets. In fact, one study found that pet owners were more satisfied with their lives than those who didn’t own pets.