The Secret Guide to Yappiness

10 reasons pets are good for our mental health

Sarah Rayner

Feline good?

‘When my cat comes up for cuddles, negative thoughts just go.’

‘Dogs see deep into your soul where humans don’t.’

Since I founded an online support group for people with anxiety and panic disorder, it’s struck me that a great many members are big animal lovers. Time and again they say their pets are a great source of comfort, and help them feel less worried and stressed. So why, exactly, is having an animal so therapeutic?

Look deep into my eyes

1. Pets teach us empathy. Being given responsibility for a hamster or guinea pig is often one of the first ways we discover how to care for another living being, but whether we’re seven or seventy, it’s good to be reminded that we are not the centre of the universe. Self-absorption can contribute to depression, and focusing on another creature – even a tortoise, terrapin or pet tarantula – can provide a positive diversion. They help us connect to our own animal nature – the carefree part of ourselves with no deadlines, mortgage or annoying colleagues or Christmas presents to buy.

‘All my cat wants is food, shelter, love, comfort and a bit of fun. He reminds me this is all that really matters.’

2. They keep us connected. Fundamental to maintaining a healthy mind is staying engaged with others, and pet owners often talk more readily to each other. When out walking, people with dogs will stop and chat about their pets, while the dogs socialise together – a win-win. And for those who live alone, a pet can be a lifeline. The ‘mad cat lady’ is a cliché – truth is an elderly widow is more likely to feel mad (and sad) without a cat for company.

Chillaxing on the sofa

3. Pets show affection, and allow us to. Having a recipient for our affections, especially a creature who responds so tangibly by wagging its tail or purring, allows us to express our own softer, more intimate side.

We all need physical affection

Our pets love us unconditionally (aside from cupboard love, of course) and feeling loved is good for self-esteem.

‘When I rescued my cat, she was ill and so was I. I looked after her and she took care of me just by being the very sweet, needy and loving cat she was.’

Looking for love? It works both ways

4. They listen without judgment, like a good therapist. But, unlike a therapist, there’s no time limit or fee – you can talk for as long as you want. Obviously the insights might not be as revealing, but they’re great secret-keepers – who hasn’t offloaded onto their pet occasionally? Moreover, if the conversations my husband has with our cat are anything to go by, men are just as prone to using our four-legged friends as sounding boards as women are.

‘There have been times that without my cats I simply wouldn’t be here.’

5. They encourage us to exercise and spend time outdoors. What’s good for our bodies is good for our minds. Physical exercise also releases excess energy, which makes it easier to fall asleep.

‘I feel happy just thinking about the uncomplicated, unconditional love and joy I share with my dog on a daily basis.’

6. Pets persuade us to play, and when we play along with them, our own bodies go through a physical change too. Levels of serotonin and dopamine (hormones that make us feel good) rise and the level of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress), is lowered.

7. They provide us with routine. When we’re down, mornings are often the hardest.

The days I wanted to curl up and die, my dog needed to go out to toilet so he was the push I needed to get up and out. Now I’m better, I’m so thankful.’

8. They remind us to live in the present moment. As I explain in my little book on anxiety, ‘when we follow our pet’s example and let go of ruminating on the past or worrying about the future and instead focus on the here and now, anxiety lessens.’ So one of the best ways to calm the anxious mind and lift mood is to become more ‘animal’, so to speak.

‘Ever since I have been poorly, the high point of my day is my daughter bringing our two guinea pigs into the lounge of an evening. They sit on our laps and within minutes we’re smiling.’

9. Pets help us relax. Many studies have shown that having a pet helps to lower blood pressure and just stroking a cat or dog can be calming.

10. Pets make us act more responsibly. Not just in terms of caring for another creature’s welfare, but more broadly, too. It was Jonathan Safron Foer’s excellent book, Eating Animals, that made me realise I couldn’t justify having one ‘rule’ for our pets, and another for pigs and poultry. I wouldn’t contemplate eating our cat, ergo I couldn’t defend making a meal of any of our furry or feathered friends. It’s a simple moral argument – some might say too simple – and I know not everyone feels the same, but it works for me.

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