Can Your Pet Improve Your Mental Health?

The bond between a pet and its owner is a special connection. It’s hard to top the feeling of coming home after a long day only to be greeted at the door with a wagging tail or a welcoming purr. Pets provide so many benefits to our lives, from companionship and a playmate to a sense of purpose or motivation. For many of us, pets are cherished members of our family. In addition to a cuddling companion, our pets can also improve our mental health and physical wellbeing.

Research shows that owning a pet can have positive effects in our lives in a number of ways. Pets can keep people active, going outside for walks and enjoying the fresh air. Pets can help your heart health. One study found that people who never owned cats were 40 percent more likely to die of a heart attack. Another study of married couples found that pet owners have lower resting heart rates and blood pressure than those without a furry friend. Pets can even help with your allergies; researchers found that children who grew up in homes with a dog or cat were less likely to develop allergies later in life. While being beneficial to our physical health, owning an animal can have psychological benefits.

Some recent studies have demonstrated that dogs can smell your sweat or breath and identify chemicals/hormones that are indicative of stress and anxiety. Imagine having a buddy that also serves as an anxiety sensor, with the added benefit of being attuned enough to embrace you when needed. Pets also provide a source of motivation for individuals to be active or complete tasks. For example, an individual trying to manage depression may benefit better from a behavioral activation intervention if a pet is there to help them engage in intrinsically satisfying tasks. They help you get up and out of a depressive loop.

Pets also benefit those with PTSD. Individuals managing PTSD may have symptoms of hyper vigilance or even reexperience a traumatic event. Animals can provide effective intervention just through their presence. People with PTSD can engage in grounding (a technique that serves to stave off hypervigilance and reexperiencing through focusing on your 5 senses) by interacting with a pet. Your pet may preemptively sense the onset of distress and provide the right amount of comfort to address your distress.

Emotional support animals (ESA) also help manage our mental/behavioral health needs, providing support and comfort. Unlike service animals, ESAs do not have any special training for a presenting symptom, but their presence is undeniably helpful for those who struggle with social anxiety, phobias, or other mental health challenges.

“Most commonly, I encounter a preference for pet therapy or an emotional support animal when patients do not prefer medication as an intervention,” said Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional, Sherrard Marrow of TPMG Behavioral Health.

When we look at the role pets play on our mental and physical health, it’s clear that we receive way more from our furry friends than one might think. Pet companionship often provides people with a sense of identity, establishing a role as a caregiver, which can be incredibly rewarding. If you think your mental health could benefit from the help of a pet, talk to a behavioral health specialist today with TPMG Behavior Health and consider adopting an animal from a local animal shelter.

Sherrard Marrow

About Sherrard Marrow, LCSW, CCTP

Sherrard Marrow, LCSW, CCTP is a licensed clinical social worker with experience in mental health illnesses, substance abuse, and emotional disorders. As a behavioral therapist, Sherrard uses his varied experience to provide inpatient interdisciplinary treatment, crisis counseling, substance abuse counseling, and treat individuals suffering from trauma, anxiety, and depression. Through his knowledge of psychosocial functioning, he integrates therapeutic interventions using evidence-based practices. Sherrard primarily works with adolescents and adults and has a special interest in treating trauma and substance abuse cases.

Sherrard joined TPMG Behavioral Health in Newport News in 2021.

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