How Pets Can Impact Mental Health (with cat and dog videos!)

Part 1: An Introduction

by Caera Gramore

[image description: a gray tabby cat lounging on a couch reminiscent of a Freudian therapy couch but sized for the cat]
Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

I still remember when I was a young adolescent and it made the news when a scientific study confirmed that pets are good for people. At the time, some scientists had measured signs like blood pressure, breath regulation, and life span to sculpt a scientific argument that pets had positive impacts on the health of people who interacted with them.

Since then, people have discovered and measured even more benefits of pets. Here are some of them:


[image description: a gray tabby cat is wearing a piece of bread with a hole in it around their face]
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Another thing that we know keeps us healthy is laughter, and humor in general. Pets can be hilarious. Watching cats or dogs play, discover new things, get into spaces you thought they couldn’t get into (especially cats in boxes), and having general antics can make us laugh and also help us maintain better health and manage symptoms. According to this article, when we laugh our bodies release endorphins, a natural pain killer, and dopamine, a neurochemical associated with rewards and pleasure. And according to this article, we get some of the benefits of exercise when we laugh.

Almost anyone who has ever used the internet knows that pet humor is very popular. On YouTube alone, random funny pet videos regularly get tens of thousands of views soon after they’re posted, and pet and animal focused YouTube channels like Simon’s Cat, Ze Frank, or Big Cat Rescue often have over one million followers, with specific videos up to over 30 million views .

Easing Social Anxiety

[image description: An adolescent person with medium-brown skin, dark hair mostly concealed by a gray ball cap, dusty-rose colored t-shirt, and blue jeans, smiles at an interaction involving a small girl with light skin, long blond hair in a French braid, and wearing a white patterned dress, who is petting a medium-sized dog. The dog is looking at the camera with their tongue out and relaxed. The dog is mostly black with a white spot on their chest and is on a blue leash held by the adolescent. The girl’s mother and sister are seated nearby and watching the interaction. They are all on a sidewalk with decorations in sidewalk chalk. A park or grassy area, and an outdoor seating area full of people, can be seen in the background.]
Photo by Michael Morse from Pexels

Many people may also struggle with social anxiety. Pets can help us out here too — they make an easy topic of conversation with most people, and they can even cause us to interact with other people more, like at a dog park for example. Some people reach for this comfort from pets – I once saw a Zoom meeting get to a point where stress relief was needed, and it briefly turned into “pet show n’ tell” as everyone in the meeting got their pet(s) on screen. This broke up the stress of the meeting and got everyone able to focus and be creative together. Some people use taking their dog for a walk as a motivator to interact with neighbors and other people (or to attract other people to interact with them). People may also choose to begin a conversation with someone new or someone they are not comfortable with by talking about pets, as a beginning conversation starter.

Self Care Routines

[A man with light brown skin and short straight dark hair wearing glasses, a white t-shirt with stripes, and biege shorts, and a woman with light brown skin, chest-length straight dark hair, and wearing a white patterned dress are smiling and jogging together with their corgi (small dog) in a park. Other people and plants are visible in the background, including palm trees.]
Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels

Pets can also help us with self care routines. Since pets need regular care, including feeding, grooming/bathing, exercise, etc., some people who struggle with self care may tie their own care to their pet’s care. People know they have to get up at their regular time, for example, if their dog is demanding to go out or their cat is demanding to be fed. People have also been known to eat on a better schedule by eating when they feed their pets, remembering to take meds by taking their own meds when they give a pet medications, or getting exercise with their pet, such as playing with pets or going for a walk or jog with a pet.

Pain Relief and Services for Disabilities

[image description: A woman with light skin, long dark hair, and blue eyes, in a pink, gray, and white plaid flannel shirt, taking a selfie photo from above while seated on a gray and white couch, with a long-haired orange tabby cat curled up in her lap. The cat’s chest is against the woman’s lower abdomen. On the arm of the couch, a cloth heating pad is visible.]
This is a photo of me with my cat Lucy. I had been using the cloth heating pad that is on the arm of the couch, but I put it aside when Lucy curled up against my pain and became my purring heating pad. Purring heating pads are far better than any other heating pad. 🙂
Photo by Caera Gramore

For those living with chronic pain and/or illness, pets can actually provide physical comfort and services. According to this article, a cat’s purr has been measured at 25 – 150 Hz, which has been compared to ultrasound frequencies for healing bones (25 – 50 Hz) and soft tissue (around 100 Hz) in humans and in other animals, including cats. Dogs can be trained to perform many services for people with chronic illness, from fetching and carrying things, to guiding people home who get lost or disoriented easily, to warning of migraines or seizures early enough to get the person somewhere safe or remind them to take meds and possibly prevent a full occurrence.  

Service Animal, Emotional Support Animal, or Therapy Animal?

[image description: a medium size, mixed breed, white, gray, black, and red long-haired dog wearing a red vest with a silver reflective strip along the edge. The vest says “SERVICE DOG” in large black lettering on a white patch with a light blue image of a medical caduceus visible under the writing.]

If you are interested in getting a pet specifically to help you with your physical and/or mental health, you and your pet might qualify for extra legal protections. You will need to know the difference between a service dog, an emotional support animal, and a therapy animal. Here is a very brief distinction:

• A service dog is carefully trained both to perform specific tasks, and to stay calm and focus on their work even when other dogs, humans, cats, food, or other distractions are around. Service dogs are legally viewed not as a pet but as an assisting device, like a wheelchair or a cane, so people with disabilities are protected to be able to bring the dog anywhere they need to be, with a few exceptions.

• An emotional support animal may or may not be trained; they may just figure out how to help support you on their own. They also do not have to be a dog; emotional support animals can include cats, horses, pigs, rats, and other animals. Emotional support animals are protected in housing as long as you have a letter from a doctor or therapist prescribing the animal for your health needs. However, they are not allowed in grocery stores, restaurants, or any public place that does not allow pets.

• A therapy animal is specially trained to support many different people and not just their human owner. Therapy animals may appear in hospitals, clinics, and other settings where many people can benefit from the therapy animal in the same place. Therapy animals are not allowed in public places that don’t allow pets, other than their workplace.

As you can see, these are 3 different categories with 3 different sets of qualifications and legal protections. There is more information about this here.

This article set out to describe just some of the ways that pets can provide mental health support. If you enjoyed this article, stay tuned for part 2 coming out next week!

[A note about image descriptions: Hello! This site uses image descriptions, or written descriptions under each image, in order to help people with blindness or low vision who may be using a screen-reader to understand what the images are. If I do not know a person’s racial or gender identities, I often choose not to guess or assume.]

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