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Why My Dog Is My Therapist: How Pets Can Reduce Stress & Improve Mental Health 

Lindsay Tigar  |  February 28, 2023

Your pup does more than pose for Instagram stories and TikTok videos—they improve your emotions. Here's why your dog may be your therapist. 

We all go through periods in our life where we feel less than stellar. Whether you’ve experienced job loss, a breakup or another transition that’s impacted your mental health, it’s tough feeling unmotivated, sad, or otherwise blah. In addition to seeing your doctor, getting plenty of sleep and water and booking a therapy appointment, you can also turn to an emotional support buddy who will never let you down — your dog. While being a pet owner requires a certain level of responsibility — both financial and emotional — being a pet parent can bring you so much joy and relaxation, you may actually live a longer life

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Here’s a look at how pets can help reduce anxiety and loneliness, and bring so much love to our lives: 

Dogs provide much-needed cuddles 

Think about your motivation to adopt a furry pup or kitten: was it to have a creature who woke you up at 3 a.m. purring loudly or barking at the wind? Probably not. Most people look forward to cuddling with their pet, and physical touch alone is a tremendous stress reliever, explains Dr. Whitney Miller, DVM, MBA, DACVPM, the chief veterinarian at PetCo

As she explains, studies indicate that holding and petting an animal can stimulate oxytocin—the ‘love hormone’—which creates a calming effect that can combat anxiety by inhibiting the production of the stress hormone cortisol. “Additionally, cuddling can stimulate the release of dopamine and serotonin, which can help to combat depression,” she says. “All these benefits are a great reason to give your pet a big hug on a stressful day.”

They make you feel less alone 

There are many ways your home may suddenly feel empty: your oldest child left for college, or a relationship you thought was forever ended in separation. A dog or cat can become a much-needed and valued companion if you’re going through a period of loneliness. “Whether you’re playing with or talking to your pet, you’re creating a connection,” explains psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. When you return to your home from work (or a simple outing to the grocery store), coming home to an animal who is excited to see you will bring energy, noise and life to your space. 

Dogs provide a consistent routine 

When you’re depressed, you may struggle to open your front door. And sometimes, even leave the comfort of your bed. Though giving ourselves grace to embrace our emotions is essential for healing, so is action. Dr. Miller says that pups need 20 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise twice a day, which can encourage pet parents to get up and out and breathe some fresh air. 

“Pet parents are significantly more likely to get outside and exercise themselves—two activities that we all know are effective at reducing stress and improving mental health,” she says. “This responsibility can provide a sense of purpose for pet parents when they need an external reason to get out of bed or return home to take care of their pet,” she says. 

They make you laugh 

When our mental health is suffering, we tend to get into negative cycles of obsessive worry, fretting or anticipating the worst. This means we may feel trapped within our heads and unable to be present. One surefire way to bring you back to the moment is via your pet, whose sweet face and silly antics will always make you giggle. And as the saying goes, laughter is terrific (and free!) medicine, says Amanda Farah, a national training and behavior coordinator at Best Friends Animal Society.

“If there’s any doubt about our fascination with dogs and the funny things they do, just click around on any social media site and look at the sheer number of dog videos and how many views they have,” she continues. “Watching dogs do silly things, or clever things, or just about anything, brings us joy. Imagine how much better it is to watch it all happen to live in your own living room.”

Dogs require you to put their needs first 

When you’re struggling with your mental health, you may be hyper-fixated on the issues and problems that you’re facing. But when you adopt a pet, you’re responsible for caring for something other than yourself, says Alyssa Mairanz, LMHC, CDBT, a licensed therapist and the founder and executive director of Empower Your Mind Therapy. This can give you a confidence boost and encourage you to think beyond the confines of your brain—all positive habits to improve mental health. 

This means that in addition to daily walks, you’ll need to make sure your pet is cared for in all ways: with a comfy bed, good food, and pet insurance to make sure that you can afford the best care for them, no matter what happens in your life together. After all, what better mental health boost could there be than to know you and your sweet animal can grow old together? Consider pet insurance as just one small way to thank them for rescuing you, too. 🙂 


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