Mental Health Awareness Month: The Benefits of Animal Companionship

The company of animals – whether as pets or services animals – can have a profound impact on a person’s quality of life and ability to recover from illnesses.

The American Pet Products Association’s Pet Owner Survey found that nearly 70% (or 84.6 million) households in the U.S. own a pet. Of those households, 80% believe their pets bring them happiness and emotional support, 55% believe their pets reduce anxiety and depression, and 66% believe their pets relieve stress.[1]

In general, pet ownership can:

  • Improve cardiovascular health and physical activity[2]
  • Decrease stress and lower blood pressure[3]
  • Reduce loneliness, which can increase the risk of developing chronic health conditions[4]

For those living with mental and physical health conditions, animal companionship can be even more beneficial. In people with cancer, animal-assisted interventions (i.e. therapy, education, activities) play a role in reducing anxiety, depression, and aggression during treatment.[5] For people being treated for HIV, those who own dogs show fewer symptoms of depression and are better at taking medications – likely because of the routines that come with dog ownership.[6]

Service dogs can also make a world of difference to many. People who are hearing impaired showed long-term reductions in depression after getting a service dog.[7] Veterans with PTSD reported decreases in depression, social isolation, anxiety, and alcohol abuse, while also reporting improved sleep and better coping with flashbacks after being paired with service dogs.[8] Service dogs also help lighten the responsibilities of caregivers by assisting those with disabilities to accomplish everyday tasks and alerting to symptoms of chronic health conditions.

[1]2017-2018 APPA National Pet Owners Survey.

[2]Levine, Glenn N., et al. “Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.” Circulation 127.23 (2013): 2353-2363.

[3]Barker, Sandra B., et al. “Exploratory study of stress-buffering response patterns from interaction with a therapy dog.” Anthrozoös 23.1 (2010): 79-91.

[4]Antonacopoulos, Nikolina M. Duvall, and Timothy A. Pychyl .“An Examination of the Potential Role of Pet Ownership, Human Social Sup­port and Pet Attachment in the Psychological Health of Individuals Living Alone.” Anthrozoös 23, no. 1 (March 2010): 37–54.

[5]Gagnon, Johanne, et al. “Implementing a hospital-based animal therapy program for children with cancer: a descriptive study.” Canadian Oncology Nursing Journal/Revue canadienne de soins infirmiers en oncologie 14.4 (2004): 217-222.

[6]Muldoon, A., Kuhns, L., Supply, J., Jacobson, K.C., & Garofalo, R. (2017). A web-based study of dog ownership and depression among people living with HIV. Journal of Medical Internet Research Mental Health 4(4).

[7]Wells, D. (2009). The effects of animals on human health and well-being. Journal of Social Issues 65(3):523-543.

[8]O’Haire, Marguerite E., and Kerri E. Rodriguez. “Preliminary efficacy of service dogs as a complementary treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder in military members and veterans.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 86.2 (2018): 179.