How Our Pets Improve Our Mental Health

If you were among the 23 million American households who chose to rescue a furry quarantine companion at the height of COVID-19, then chances are, you know firsthand just how beneficial animals can be for your mental health. Despite some “alarmist headlines” in 2021 that claimed many new pet owners were rehoming their pandemic rescues, data from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) shows 87 percent of animal adopters will not even consider parting with their furbabies. 

In fact, 98 percent of surveyed pet owners think having an animal to spend time with and care for helps reduce loneliness, manage stress, and boost happiness, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) points out. 

3 Ways Pets Improve Our Mental Health

husky puppies
Photo by Kateryna Babaieva

On the fence about whether to adopt a furry friend (or two or three…) of your own? Here are just a few of the mental, emotional, and even physical benefits that animals can offer us.

1. Owning a Pet Boosts Empathy and Emotional Intelligence.

According to neuroscience researchers at the University of Chicago, children from a variety of backgrounds who form close bonds with animals tend to exhibit more prosocial behaviors as they grow into adults. Prosocial behavior includes showing empathy and compassion toward others, as well as modulating emotional responses in a way that’s helpful and constructive, rather than harmful to ourselves or someone else. 

Animals draw empathy and emotional intelligence out of us for one simple reason. They love unconditionally, which makes them excellent guides for how to treat other humans. When we are on the receiving end of such pure devotion, it’s only natural to pass it on. Being in tune with the needs of a vulnerable creature teaches us to prioritize the welfare of those we interact with in our communities. 

2. Pets Help with Stress and Anxiety Management.

It’s no secret that animals provide connection and companionship, both of which helped many of us deal with our social isolation in the pandemic. But research shows bonding with a pet can decrease certain biomarkers for stress and anxiety too. In fact, a study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health found that positive animal attachments can 

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Stabilize heart rate
  • Reduce cortisol levels
  • boost oxytocin (the “love hormone” responsible for enhancing our overall mood state)

These wellness benefits also make it easier to regulate intense emotions and manage the effects of anxiety, stress, or depression when they arise. Even the simple action of stroking an animal—especially a dog—can flood our brains with oxytocin to relax and calm the nerves after a stressful experience. 

So just in case any of us need one more reason to cuddle on the couch with our furbabies after a long, hectic workday, there it is.  


3. Owning a Pet Increases Trauma Resilience and Recovery.

None of us escape life without some degree of trauma—whether it’s due to a collective societal disruption like COVID-19, an intergenerational crisis, or the experience of a distressing event. There are many therapeutic outlets to heal from trauma, but according to research from the Frontiers in Psychology Journal, animal interaction can be particularly effective in helping to alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. 

In this study, combat veterans who suffered from PTSD were paired with service dogs, trained to comfort emotional distress. The dogs were able to help their owners cope with intrusive thoughts and anxious or hypervigilant reactions associated with post-traumatic stress. Even the sense of camaraderie from these dogs kept the veterans stable during a flashback episode. You might not have PTSD, but if the traumas of your own life sometimes threaten your mental health and resilience, a pet can be such a healing presence. 

How to Register Your Pet as an Emotional Support Animal

If you have a mental health issue that makes it hard to function without the soothing benefits of a furry companion, then you might be able to register your pet as an Emotional Support Animal (ESA). 

Service Animal vs. Emotional Support Animal 

tabby cat by w
Photo by EVG Kowalievska

This distinction is not the same as a service animal, which is trained to help with routine activities and can legally come with you to all public areas, including retail stores, airplanes, restaurants, medical facilities, entertainment venues, and other businesses. 

ESAs do not have nearly as much public access as their service animal counterparts. However, they can travel on a flight without a carrier (for free) and are permitted in rental housing units that don’t allow pets. In some cases, you can claim a tax write-off for owning an ESA. But you must show proof from a therapist or clinician that you do, in fact, legitimately require mental and emotional support.

Registering your pet as an ESA

There is no official process to register your pet as an ESA. Still, to access the travel or housing allowances that come with this distinction, you must be able to produce a letter from a certified mental health professional. This letter should: 

  • Be written on the health provider’s own official letterhead
  • Show the provider’s license number, signature, and the date written
  • Needs to outline why the emotional support animal is necessary

If you don’t have a mental health provider currently, there is an alternate solution. Websites such as CertaPet, ESA Doctors, or Emotional Pet Support will draft a letter for you online. Just be aware that you will need to complete a mental health evaluation. The letter will also cost anywhere between $99 and $200, based on which plan you choose. After obtaining the letter, make sure it’s easily accessible— otherwise, you won’t be able to use those ESA benefits. 

About Author

Mary-Elizabeth Meagher is a freelance writer, social media marketer, travel enthusiast, musical theatre nerd and self-described bohemian. She lives and seeks adventure in the Arizona desert, and she also blogs over at Health Be a Hippie—her personal contribution to making the internet a more authentic, vulnerable and empowering place.

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