Pets & Positivity

As a dog owner for over 20 years, I have recently been reminded of a pet’s unique companionship. Many people who used to work in offices would have to leave their pets home when they went to work. I’ve always enjoyed the happily wagging dog tail greeting me as I entered the door. Even as I write this, he lays on the carpet beside my chair while I work. His fuzzy little face has brought 12 years of joy, and while I work remotely, he’s kept me company. Before him, his grandmother was my loving furry companion for 18 years, and the kind of unconditional love a pet can provide

For thousands of years, there has been a positive correlation between having a pet nearby and mental health. Dogs go into healthcare facilities to spend time with patients, and some libraries have a cat or two roaming about in search of head scratches. The Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center posted an article about the impacts of pet ownership on mental health.

  • Buffer stress and depression
    • Petting soft fur or playing a game with your pet can be refreshing and bring a smile. Animals with fur usually enjoy being petted and playing games (think: fetch, chasing yarn, tug of war, etc.).
    • For those who suffer from depression symptoms, a pet can provide a source of empathy and love even if the owner lives alone. A clinical psychologist Perpetua Neo, Ph.D., was quoted in a WebMD article as saying, “Animals pick up on when their owners are distressed,” she says. When they sense you’re not feeling well, they offer comfort.” It’s known that therapy animals do this due to having received specialized training. However, I can speak from firsthand experience that non-trained pets know when their owners are having a hard time.
    • A study published in BMC Psychiatry sought to understand the importance of the pet and owner bond on a more scientific level. The results section states, “A total of 17 studies were included in the review. Quantitative evidence relating to the benefits of pet ownership was mixed with included studies demonstrating positive, negative, and neutral impacts of pet ownership. Qualitative studies illuminated the intensiveness of connectivity people with companion animals reported and the multi-faceted ways in which pets contributed to the work associated with managing a mental health condition, particularly in times of crisis.”
    • Therapy dogs have often been brought into schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities. People have found the animal’s presence therapeutic. I recall the many times we took my mom’s dog Odie to visit my grandpa in his assisted living home. He’d get pets from almost everyone, and my grandpa loved having him around. The other residents would sometimes hand him table scraps, and they’d all get a kick out of him vacuuming (he’d sniff the floor thoroughly for bits of food to eat). If we didn’t bring the dog with us, they’d ask where he was, and we’d make sure to bring him the next day. Though there may not have been a published study back then (2009) indicating the correlation between pets and positivity for people, it’s evident to me that animals can significantly benefit the people they are around.
  • Lower heart rate and blood pressure
    • The relaxing effect of pet companionship helps to lower feelings of anxiety and, in turn, heart rate and blood pressure.
    • The CDC states on their site, “Studies have shown that the bond between people and their pets is linked to…Decreased blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD… Increased opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities; better cognitive function in older adults; and more opportunities to socialize”.
    • A chemical reaction in the brain is also mentioned in an article on Medical News Today. The researchers suggest that “Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels, most likely through oxytocin release, which lessens physiologic responses to stress. These hormonal effects may underlie the observed emotional and behavioral benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs.” Even though dogs were the primary animal mentioned in the article, I believe other animals may be equally capable of providing the same brain-boosting chemicals.

Having owned pets most of my life and being around others who also had them, I know the benefits of such a relationship. My dogs have both been there for me when I was crying and when I was happy. Their loyalty and love are a treasure, and their companionship is a joy even on the darkest days.

By Gretchen Hendrick Gardella, MLIS

Gretchen Hendrick Gardella is a Librarian with administrative, research, and vast technical skills. Ms. Gardella brings over 16 years of experience working in academic and public libraries to the discussion.