Any pet owner can probably attest to how having a pet impacts your mental wellbeing. It’s widely known that pets can ease anxiety and stress, but it’s not as simple as just being happy because you’re cuddling with your dog. There’s real science to back it up, and the idea is no longer just speculation among animal lovers.
What is stress?
We often talk about stress, but what is it, exactly? In simple terms, stress is what we feel when we’re in danger ― a useful emotion, right? The thing is, though, that things aren’t quite as dangerous these days as they used to be. We’re not being chased by predators on a regular basis, for instance, and finding shelter and food is rarely an issue. But that doesn’t mean those responses and instincts go away. Instead, we react with stress to things like running late for the bus, not knowing what to cook tonight, or falling behind on work. In comparison, these troubles can seem rather trivial ― but our brains don’t know that. So, our brains will react the same way.
“Stress” is basically a pretty overarching term for mental health issues commonly seen today, but some are a little more specific. Anxiety is essentially the brain thinking harmless things are dangerous, whether concrete or abstract, which in turn puts the person on high-alert at all times. Depression creates a sense of apathy, lack of motivation, and can lead to deep spirals of feelings like hopelessness, failure, and sadness. Paranoia, compulsive thoughts and behaviors ― the list goes on. All of these conditions increase stress levels significantly, and people with existing mental health issues will be more susceptible to its effects than others. Especially when the world at large is going through big, troubling things, even the most unbothered people can get stressed and anxious. It can be quite exhausting.
When we are stressed, the hormone known as cortisol is released. Too much of it, and over longer periods of time, can lead to high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to high cholesterol and hypertension. This is where the magic of pets comes in.
Dog-human cooperation and evolution
An interesting thing about dogs in particular is their relationship with humans. Dogs are genetically predisposed to work with humans, to like us and trust us, and this is the result of millennia of evolution and breeding. They are unique in this way; dogs want to work with humans, specifically, more so than any other animal. It’s no wonder that they’re always there for us, always listening and paying attention, always ready to step in and offer whatever comfort or help we might need. And they do a great job, too.
Dogs are highly attuned to humans, due to our shared evolution and long history. We’ve all had moments when we’ve been sad or upset, and it’s like our dogs just know. They’ll make every effort to comfort and support, and it always somehow, magically, works. Whether it’s work, hunting, or just companionship, dogs offer a unique kind of relationship and easing of stress.
How does it work?
So, how do dogs ease stress, and its related emotions? Well, there is the psychological aspect of it ― we just naturally like animals, and especially dogs. We work well with them, and enjoy focusing on them and their behavior. Many studies have shown a significant drop in blood pressure when cuddling with a dog, both in the moment and in the long term; just three months of fostering a dog can change things for the better. One study in particular divided participants into three groups; one group had a pet close by, another was asked to think about a pet, and the third had no involvement with pets at all. The first two groups fared significantly better in terms of blood pressure and confidence. The conclusion was that having a pet nearby can make a marked difference in one’s wellbeing. Even just thinking about your pet can do the trick.
Aside from the psychological side of it, there’s the matter of healthy habits. A dog not only requires us to go outside a few times a day, but makes us want to. A dog is dependent on their human making sure they stay fed and watered, happy and entertained, and that they get their regular dose of exercise and tree-sniffing. Going outside means that we get exercise, too, as well as fresh air and some sunlight. This, in turn, also improves our cardiovascular health, which in turn improves our mental health.
Emotional support and stability
The term “emotional support animal” has become widely used in the past few years, and the designation is pretty self-explanatory. An ESA ― in this case, dogs in particular ― provides a sense of stability and support. Sometimes, just having an anchor in the form of a dog, and their unconditional love and patience, can be enough to keep someone from spiraling into anxiety and obsessive thoughts. In times of crisis, this is more important than ever.
Dogs also just make us feel less lonely; even if your companion can’t hold a conversation with you, it’s a lot nicer to have their company than to sit alone. Humans are social beings, and loneliness is actually a very common source of stress. Dogs, like other pets, help remedy this, which in turn can inspire us to be more social and open toward other humans, too. They satisfy some of our need for physical touch and closeness, which is a huge component in relieving stress and feeling joy. This is especially important for those who live alone. Lastly, pets make us laugh ― your life will definitely be fuller if you spend your time laughing at all the ridiculous stuff your dog gets up to.
Some dogs are better suited for this kind of thing ― i.e. calmer, less demanding breeds, generally speaking. Breeds like the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Golden Retriever, and the Maltese are all excellent in their own ways when it comes to providing some soothing stability. Their friendly natures and social personalities make them ideal for cuddling on the couch when you’re having a hard time, but they’ll also gently prompt you to provide some exercise and entertainment when needed.
A natural stress-reliever
All pets have the power to make us feel things, for better or worse. But most of the time, they make us feel calmer, less lonely, more motivated to get things done, and they do genuinely care about our wellbeing. Just like any animal can provide this kind of support, any dog breed can as well, though some are better suited than others. Regardless, your dog will do anything they can to make you smile, especially when times are tough.