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You’ve Got a Friend: Pets for Depression and Anxiety

One of the most rewarding parts of being a veterinarian is when I see the close bonds that people have with their companion animals. These family members provide so much love and comfort, it’s clear to me that they are helping their human companions feel less lonely and more connected. 

More and more evidence is showing the physical and mental health benefits of living with pets. Pets are proven to alleviate depression and anxiety. 

Here’s some of what we’ve learned about these important relationships.

The Bad News: Loneliness Is an Epidemic

Even before the devastating blow of the COVID‑19 pandemic, loneliness had reached epidemic proportions, especially among our elders. In 2019, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) co‑hosted a Summit on Social Isolation and Companion Animals. Among the findings they shared:

  • A 2018 Cigna survey found nearly half of Americans reported sometimes or always feeling alone. 
  • Social isolation increases health risks comparable to obesity and cigarette smoking. 
  • It also is associated with depression, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, decreased mobility, and risk of early death. 

The Good News: Pets Can Help Us Feel Less Lonely

Mars Petcare and HABRI commissioned a study that found significant reductions in loneliness when people interact with pets. 

  • 80% of pet owners report their pet makes them feel less lonely. 
  • 85% of respondents (both pet owners and non–pet owners) believe interaction with companion animals can help reduce loneliness.
  • 76% of respondents believe human‑animal interactions can help address social isolation. 
  • Pet owners with the closest bonds to their pets reported fewer feelings of loneliness and social isolation.

Pets for Depression and Anxiety

We all know how interrelated our physical and mental health are. That’s why exercise has often been shown to boost people’s moods. People who interact with pets report less loneliness and stress, and they tend to get more exercise, which decreases the risk of heart disease.  

HABRI’s research shows the following mental health benefits to living with pets:

  • Pet owners are less likely to be obese and more likely to meet physical activity guidelines.
  • Pets provide a welcome distraction from the stresses of managing a mental health condition.
  • Children learn important lessons about attachment and caring from living with pets. 
  • Pets contribute to a stronger sense of identity for people with mental health conditions and reduce negative perceptions of diagnoses.
  • Pets provide security and routine.

I’ve heard from several people who seek Vouchers to help them pay for veterinary bills that pets help give them a reason to get out of bed. These stories we hear show how what we’re doing is helping not only the pets but also the people. I love that!

Talk to Your Pets

I talk to my pets all the time, so I was glad to learn that talking with animals is another way that pets help alleviate depression and anxiety. For people experiencing loneliness, depression, or anxiety, pets can fill a need for people to talk to or confide in someone. Pets help people develop social awareness and relationship skills that improve human interactions. And of course, you can get to know people in your neighborhood by walking your companion animal.

We form strong bonds with our companion animals that can help us face difficulties like loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Whether it’s from unconditional love, increased exercise, more socializing, or just the simple comfort of snuggling, these relationships are helping pet parents find health and wellness.

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