Pets and Mental Health

Those that have pets will surely agree with what I’m about to talk about. Pets are said to be able to improve your mental health! So those of you who do not have a pet should go out and buy one, right? Let’s find out.

The Huffington post lists a dozen reasons how a pet can improve your mental health. For example, petting them can reduce stress, and they help reduce loneliness. The reduction in stress from rhythmic petting, is due to when you connect with your pet, oxytocin, a hormone related to anxiety and stress relief is released and helps to reduce blood pressure as well as lower cortisol levels. The explanation behind them reducing loneliness is essentially self explanatory. They are there when you need them.

LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. -- Gene Mohr, a retired Tech. Sergeant, pets Mollie, a three year old Sheltie at Langley Hospital Jan. 30.  Mollie does about 10 visits throughout the Hampton Roads Area.  This is her third week visiting Langley Air Force Base.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Zachary Wolf)

Is it really true though, that pets can improve mental health? In a research study published on Wiley Online Library, an experiment was done to test the effect of a companion dog on levels of depression and and anxiety in residents living in a long term care facility. For the study the used sixteen residents, 8 men and 8 women. They randomly assigned the residents into a control group and an experimental group that would experience Animal Assisted Activity once a week for six weeks. To determine the results, they used the Beck Depression Inventory and Beck Anxiety Inventory to pre and post experiment.


From this experiment they were able to discover that the difference in depression levels in the Animal Assisted Activity group were significant enough to reject the null hypothesis that dogs would have no effect on depression (p=.017). Besides that, however no other statistical differences were found amongst the control group or the anxiety levels of the animal assisted group.

This experiment did have some flaws however. First the sample size was extremely small. Also the sample of people was very specific since they all lived in a long care facility, this experiment would not have been able to provide a general consensus as to whether pets helped everyone or not. Also, confounding variables could have been another issue. Without further research, nothing can really be concluded from this experiment.

In another study posted in the European Journal of integrative Medicine, they found different results. With 12 patients they created a control and experimental group. In this experiment they tested the effect of animal assisted therapy on the anxiety levels in acutely depressed patients. They conducted a pre and post treatment controlled crossover study that used the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory to measure the levels within the patients. In conclusion, theyfile_20839_column_who-benefits-from-therapy-pets were able to conclude that the reduction in anxiety levels in the patients that received animal assisted therapy was statistically significant with a p-value of .016.

Although this study provides different results from the one discussed earlier, the experiment was set up differently. These patients received two sessions of 30 minutes of interaction with a dog and the amount of interaction was allowed to be determined by the patient.

Overall, until more research is done, the true effects of pets on mental health will not be known. I believe that the studies that have been done so far have been extremely weak. They need truly need larger sample sizes. Doing experimental research on 12-16 people is not going to be very useful.

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4 thoughts on “Pets and Mental Health

  1. Mackenzie French

    You are right, just about anyone who has a pet can agree that pets make people feel happier, more secure, more loved, etc. This past summer my brother came home from college and surprised my family with his new puppy. At first we were all like what are you thinking, but it ended up to be the best surprise ever. I ended up falling in love with his dog, and it was very hard to say goodbye to him when he left with my brother back to school. I think having a pet not only makes you feel less alone at home, but it also provides you with a whole new social world. I took his dog on many walks and to the dog park, and met a ton of new people. I think having a pet is one of the best things someone can do when they feel like they are alone, or stressed out. They provide you with love and comfort and also make you get out of the house for exercise! I’d like to see this proven by studies, but at the end of the day who really needs a proven study when most pet lovers all believe this to be true.

  2. Audra Wren Laskey

    This blog got my attention because I own a dog, and whenever I see a service dog walking around campus I freak out and have to pet it. Just seeing a random dog on campus I have no attachment to can brighten my day immensely. These animals can greatly help with mental disabilities, shown in the studies you provided. But these service animals can also greatly help with people who suffer from physical disabilities. Her is a link to an article which shows how a miniature helps a blind woman get around as her service animal

  3. Jessica Heckler

    Another thing to keep in mind in these studies is if the patients receiving the animal assistance like pets, or dogs specifically. People who love dogs are more likely to react strongly to them, especially if seeing a dog can bring back happy memories from their past that can kind of distract them from what they’re going through now. However, if a patient is more of a cat person, it would make more sense to put them in an experiment with cats and seeing if they have the same affect of patients being treated with dogs.
    Although these experiments are both very small and you are correct in saying that they can not be generalized over the population, there are many beliefs that dogs decrease stress and depression, assuming that the people like dogs. For example, many universities bring in puppies and dogs during final week so their students can destress for a little bit while playing with the pups. Therapy dogs are also a pretty wide known treatment for depression, stress, and anxiety. One of my teammate growing up struggled with depression and anxiety and recently got a therapy dog that has helped her tremendously mostly because someone is always with her now. Like I said before, this is probably different for every person, but I do believe that pets can help with peoples overall mental health!

  4. Anthony Michael Calligaro

    I, unlike pretty much everyone I know, have never had a pet. I had a goldfish once, but he died after five days. Ignoring that, I always hear that pets improve their owner’s happiness and mental health. Growing up, I never believed this statement as I have felt very happy with good mental health without any pets to assist me. In your blog, you concluded that more research needs to be done because both studies did not have large enough sample sizes. At first, I was very excited. Maybe pets don’t improve their owner’s mental health after all! Unfortunately, according to the American Psychological Association (link below), three studies of 217 people, 56 dog owners, and 97 undergraduates, respectively, found that those who have pets have better mental health. In my opinion, I think it is safe to say that there is enough evidence from these studies and other large-scale studies to indicate that pets improve their owner’s mental health. Maybe I should have asked for a pet as a child…

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