Whether it’s playing with a pooch or petting a purring kitty, there’s no doubt that pets bring their families joy. Pet owners can appreciate the World Health Organization’s declaration that companion animals reward us with enormous benefits. “Fur therapy,” as some call it, can help us live healthier, happier lives.

In the last column, we explored the ways a pet can benefit your physical health. Today, let’s discuss the important role pets play in our mental and emotional health. Pets can:

 

Provide companionship and support

We all need affection, but sometimes we have difficulty getting it from other people. Pets provide friendship and unconditional love. They are always there and always happy to see you.

 

Enhance your mood

A pet’s comforting presence increases the production of prolactin, serotonin and oxytocin, hormones that increase happiness. Pets also seem to know when you need them. They tend to draw near when you’re feeling down to lift your spirits.

 

Take your mind off your problems

Caring for a pet draws attention away from your problems and makes your worries seem less important, particularly if you live alone. Because pets live in the moment, they help you appreciate the joy of the present.

 

Lessen anxiety and stress

Spending even a short time interacting with your pet helps ease anxiety and reduce cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone. Playing with your pet elevates levels of dopamine and serotonin, hormones associated with well-being and calm.

 

Help combat depression

Depression can make you pull back from family and friends. With a pet, you’re never alone. Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than people without pets. Having a pet can elevate serotonin and dopamine levels, hormones that lift depression.

 

Beat loneliness

A pet’s companionship can bring great pleasure, while loneliness can elicit symptoms of depression. Nothing trumps loneliness like coming home to a wagging tail.

 

Build self-esteem and self-confidence

Pets accept you for who you are. In their eyes, you’re the best person in the world. A pet can help build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world.

 

Help you meet new people

Pets can encourage you to start new friendships with other people interested in animals. This is particularly true for dog owners who can meet others on walks. Pets are a great ice-breaker and can help those with social awkwardness.

 

Add structure to your day

Pets give you a reason to get up in the morning. They need to be fed on a regular schedule. Dogs need daily exercise and cats need playtime. Having a consistent routine not only keeps a pet calm and well-balanced, but it can also work for you, too.

 

Help with healthy aging

When you retire, you lose things that previously occupied your time and gave your life meaning. Caring for a pet adds a new positive focus and increases your sense of self-worth. Adopting a pet from a shelter, particularly an older pet, adds to that sense of fulfillment.

Studies confirm what many people have known to be true for a long time: that animals are good for us. Research emphasizes, however, that these benefits accrue only to true animal lovers who can make a lifetime commitment to their pets’ health and happiness.

As a volunteer with the Nova Scotia SPCA, I get the chance to see that special moment when an adopter looks into the eyes of a homeless animal and knows they’re meant to be together