HCA North Florida Division - October 14, 2019

Pets play an important role in so many people’s day-to-day lives, keeping them safe, happy and healthy. Service animals assist people who have disabilities in performing daily tasks and can alert them to a medical emergency. Emotional support animals also provide companionship to those who have mental health issues.

But did you know that pets can help lift just about anyone’s spirits?

Pet parents feel pretty strongly about the benefits their animals offer. In a survey of pet owners conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Cohen Research Group, 74 percent of respondents reported mental health improvements related to pet ownership, and 75 percent reported improvements in a friend or family member’s mental health.

Pets can help people with mental health conditions

For many people, being close to a furry friend can offer therapeutic benefits. In fact, research suggests that bonding with a pet may increase levels of oxytocin, a “feel good” hormone, in the body. Pet ownership has also been shown to have a positive impact on those with certain conditions.

Depression

Having a pet can help people with depression and anxiety combat feelings of loneliness and social isolation. The social benefits of pet ownership can be especially helpful for seniors.

What’s more, having a dog means you need to take them out for regular walks, which helps you get exercise. Exercise, in turn, helps boost levels of endorphins — another type of “feel good” hormone that may help reduce the symptoms of depression.

ADHD

Pet ownership can help teach children who have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) about responsibility. Caring for a pet requires time management, planning, structure and scheduling — whether it’s feeding them at certain times each day, taking them out for regular walks or bathing them.

Having a pet can also teach empathy — something children with ADHD often struggle with — as well as lower kids’ stress levels, calm them down and provide an outlet for excess energy.

Just remember that getting a pet should always be a family project. Children younger than age 10 are unlikely to be able to care for a dog or cat on their own, and even older children will need a parent’s guidance and modeling to learn proper care. A parent may need to step in if a child falls behind in their duties.

Autism

Research shows that children who have autism can develop strong bonds with family pets and benefit from the unconditional love and companionship pets provide. What’s more, having a pet helps promote social skills in children with autism. It may even help improve sensory issues.

Of course, choosing a pet for your child with autism requires care. Pets have personalities, too, so it’s important to find the right match. A large dog that barks a lot, for example, may not be a good fit for a child who is sensitive to noise.

Alzheimer’s disease

For people who have Alzheimer’s disease, interacting with a pet can help reduce associated symptoms like anxiety, agitation, irritability, depression and loneliness. Exposure to pets can also help draw these people out and help them become more interactive, while reducing behavioral issues.

It’s worth noting, however, that for people with Alzheimer’s specifically, there’s a difference between owning a pet and having access to one.

Memory issues associated with Alzheimer’s, for example, may necessitate that a caregiver step in to handle responsibilities like feeding the pet and maintaining grooming and veterinary care.

What to consider before you bring a pet home

Be sure you’re up for the challenge before you take on pet ownership.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that prospective pet owners ask themselves some key questions, including:

  • How long will the animal live and how large will it grow?
  • How much will veterinary care and food cost?
  • How much room does the animal need to be happy and healthy?
  • Do I have the time, energy and stamina required to care for the pet?

Take the time to find the right fit for you and your family.

Medically reviewed in June 2019. This article originally appeared on Sharecare.com.