After several weeks of “self quarantining” due to stay at home orders, there is an unsung hero that makes all of this a bit better: our beloved pets. Our cats and dogs have been some of the most excellent companions throughout this entire process of social isolation during COVID-19. Even the animal shelters have seen a massive increase in fosters and adoptions as humans have realized the benefits of having a furry companion at home. Our lives are forever changed because of Felix, the cat, or Fido, the dog.
“There is no psychiatrist in the world, like a puppy licking your face.”
The history of furry companionship
Pets provide mental health benefits that are hard to put a price on, especially during this time. They bring us peace, comfort, and are known to help with anxiety and depression. The history of pet ownership dates back to thousands of years ago when men would hunt nomadically with their dogs, descendants of wolves. Cats were often used as pest control, and although both cats and dogs had practical roles, they were also beloved human companions.
Egyptians, for example, regarded their cats as gods and mummified and entombed them alongside their owners.
European art from the 19th century depicts dogs as cared-for members of a household, rather than as possessions. Queen Elizabeth II regards her corgis as members of her family and has supervised a corgi breeding program since the 1950s, illustrating the importance of domesticated dogs as companions.
Pets have been an integral part of human history for thousands of years, operating not just as practical watchdogs and mousers, but also as members of our family and our source of comfort when the going gets rough.
Pets are known to decrease our stress levels, increase our happiness, and give us a sense of adventure, which are all important during this stressful time.
How pets impact our mental health
Cortisol and stress: Cortisol is a natural hormone our body produces when we are stressed. Cortisol throws us into a “fight or flight” state and helps us become vigilant during our survival mode. When we have a surplus of cortisol in our bodies, we often become anxious and agitated, which can have a negative effect on our mental health. Research has shown that spending 10 minutes with a dog or cat can decrease your cortisol, which can lower your stress levels, and work wonders for your anxiety.
Oxytocin and bonding: Oxytocin is known as the “love” hormone, the “bonding” hormone and the “happy” hormone. Oxytocin is produced during childbearing and breastfeeding and creates an immediate sensation of satisfaction between lovers. Oxytocin does not just release feelings of connection and happiness between human species but also plays a role in the relationship between humans and pets. Research has shown that having a furry companion increases the production of oxytocin in the human brain and, in effect, increases our sense of connection and ability to bond with others. When we are connected with others, including our pets, we are less prone to depression, loneliness, and anxiety.
Play and responsibility: Whether it is a dog wanting to play fetch or a cat wanting to play with catnip, our furry companions can teach us an enormous amount about the importance of play. Spending time to “play” can allow our minds to wander and can let us laugh even during trying times. Playing with our pets can relieve outside stress and tension in our lives. Pets also give us a sense of purpose and responsibility. Pet ownership comes with essential tasks that include food, water, shelter, exercise, and vet visits. A sense of purpose and responsibility can give us a reason to wake up in the morning and get into a daily routine with our pets. This responsibility is critical, especially during periods of depression and anxiety.
Pets provide companionship
Dogs steal our hearts, chew our shoes, and are always there to greet us when we come home. Dogs (and cats) bring us endless amounts of joy and allow us to engage in social interactions. Dogs’ friendly and outgoing personalities enable them to expose their human companions to other individuals, potentially facilitating new friendships among humans. Social interactions are essential in our lives, even if we are introverts and thrive on our alone time. Although social interactions with other humans are far and few between during this time of COVID-19, we can still socialize with our pets, which decrease feelings of loneliness, especially when we are practicing “self-quarantine”.
If you find yourself lonely during this pandemic or feel as though your daily routine is monotonous, consider fostering or adopting a furry companion. Pets have many great benefits on the emotional and well being of humans.
If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, please consider seeking professional help. Although pets can bring an abundance of joy into your life, mental health disorders are best treated with a combination of psychotherapy approaches, medications, and lifestyle changes.
At Casa Palmera, our goal is whole-person healing; we treat the whole person and not just the disorder. Our dedicated treatment team goes underneath the surface of a presenting problem to determine the underlying triggers and address the root so that it doesn’t manifest itself in other ways. Our goal is not to treat the wound with a Band-Aid but instead develop a permanent solution to problems that are preventing you from living your happiest and healthiest life. Our clinical staff works with you to develop an individualized treatment plan that includes therapy approaches for your specific needs, as well as tools that will improve your life on a holistic level. Learn more about Casa Palmera here and see how Casa Palmera’s programs can help you transform your mind, body, and soul.
Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a clinical content writer and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the vital world of mental health and addiction medicine. She is a family medicine physician and author, who also teaches and contributes to medicine board education. Her passion lies within educating the public on preventable diseases, including mental health disorders and the stigma associated with them. She is also an outdoor and spends most of her free time empowering other women to get outside into the backcountry.