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How Do Dogs and Other Pets Help Us Reduce Stress?

Updated: May 11, 2022

A beautiful Brittany spaniel dog resting during a hike in the woods.

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You might be thinking, “How can having a pet reduce stress?” After all, aren’t they a lot of work and responsibility?

Yes, they are.

But there are scientifically proven health benefits to living with a pet. Just having the chance to pet a dog or cat can reduce cortisol, lower blood pressure, improve mental health, and bring a smile to someone’s face.

As I mentioned in a prior article about party planning, I always look for the dog when visiting someone’s home. Animals are stress relievers, and for me, a friendly dog always does the trick.

If you’re a pet owner, you probably feel the same way.

Pets encourage us to go outside, take walks, and socialize with other animal lovers. Dogs are especially good at reminding us to walk as part of our daily routine. But even pets that don’t enjoy going for walks (like fish, reptiles, or birds) can help alleviate depression and provide companionship.

Cats have a special ability that no other pets can provide: they purr within a frequency of 20 to 140 Hz—a range known to promote healing in humans.

My sister’s cat was able to detect skin cancer on my mom. The cat’s constant sniffing of my mom’s head every time she went for a visit prompted her to make an appointment with the dermatologist (and probably saved her from progression of the disease).

A cat enjoying having her chin rubbed.

10 ways pets benefit our health.

  1. Boost your mood: Interacting with dogs or other pets increases our level of oxytocin (the “love hormone”). Oxytocin is associated with that warm, fuzzy feeling—what a great way to boost mental health!

  2. Increase socializing: Walking a dog encourages us to meet other animal lovers and provides opportunities to make new friends.

  3. Lowers blood pressure: Studies show that pet ownership improves our health in many ways, including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Research on human and dog interactions shows that talking to and petting a dog—like a therapy dog visiting a hospital—lowers blood pressure in the person the dog interacts with.

  4. Decrease loneliness: Having a pet provides companionship and creates a mutual bond (another mental health benefit!). Data from Shelter Animals Count shows that dog and cat adoptions increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many people took on the responsibility of pet ownership to decrease their loneliness during the lockdown.

  5. Sense of purpose: The responsibility of pet ownership can be a joyful reminder that you are loved and needed by someone who depends on you.

  6. Reduces cortisol levels: Engaging with a dog or other pet during stressful times helps decrease cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and reduce anxiety. That’s why more courtrooms are including therapy dogs as part of the team—especially with children who are victims of crime.

  7. Give us someone to talk to: Have you ever just poured your heart out to a beloved pet? Pets sense our feelings and give us unconditional love. They can be great listeners and excellent secret keepers.

  8. Decrease fearfulness: Having a dog in the home can decrease feelings of fear for people who live alone. Even small, gentle dogs can alert us when someone approaches—you don’t need a large breed or guard dog to let you know when someone is at your door.

  9. Physical fitness: Walking a dog or working outside with farm animals encourages muscle building, strength, and coordination.

  10. Remind us to relax and live in the present moment: Pets live in the now and bring our attention to the little things around us—a slobbery ball to play fetch with, bubbles in a fish tank, or the smell of fresh hay when we’re feeding a horse.

“Dogs are very present. If someone is struggling with something, they know how to sit there and be loving.” ~ Dr. Ann Berger, NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland

What if I don’t live with a pet?

You can still experience the benefits of being around animals even if you don’t have a pet in your home. Here are a few ways you can bring the joy of animals into your life.

  1. Volunteer to cuddle cats. Many shelters, humane societies, and rescues need volunteers to play with cats waiting to be adopted. Find a location near you, and indulge in some snuggle time.

  2. Volunteer to walk dogs. Just as cats need cuddling, dogs need to get out of their kennels and go for a walk. Contact a shelter near you to see if they have a dog-walking program you can join.

  3. Goat yoga: Yes, this is really a thing! If you enjoy a good stretch and love to play with goats, find a goat yoga location near you and get ready to make some new friends.

  4. Cuddle a cow. Farm animal rescues, sometimes known as sanctuary farms, are opening up to the idea of inviting visitors to interact with rescued farm animals. Cuddling a cow increases oxytocin—just like interacting with household pets!

  5. Get a lower-maintenance pet. Easy to care for pets, like goldfish or betta fish, are an option for people who want a pet in their home but aren’t ready for a dog or cat. Pets such as freshwater fish are lower maintenance and usually cost less to feed and take care of.

  6. Participate in a pet therapy program. Dogs are common therapy animals, but cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, and miniature horses can participate in select programs. Some programs need volunteer handlers to work with animals who are in the process of earning a certification. Search Google to find a program near you.

Whether you’re a dog owner or a cat cuddler, you can feel confident that you are gaining health benefits, reducing stress, and giving a loving creature some much-needed attention when interacting with animals.

Know someone who loves dogs? You might enjoy this post with ideas for gifts for dog lovers.

Have you ever thought of throwing a pet party? Check out this dog Halloween party post to get a free printable party planning checklist!

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