Dog walking

Study shows positive impact of cats and dogs on mental health

Cats and dogs are good for our mental health — and the benefits increase over time.

In a new study, individuals with mental illness showed lower anxiety, depression and loneliness after being paired with a shelter dog or cat and spending time with the animal.

Participants in the study, all of whom were identified as at risk of social isolation, were referred by their mental health providers.

Family Dog

A research team led by Dr Janet Hoy-Gerlach, a professor of social work at the University of Toledo, regularly tested the participants for changes in biomarkers related to stress and bonding. They also asked the participants about their feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness prior to adoption and at the end of the 12-month study period.

At the conclusion of the study, there was a statistically significant decrease in participants’ depression, anxiety and loneliness as measured by standardised scales.

The researchers also observed a consistent pattern of higher amounts of the bonding hormone oxytocin and lower amounts of the stress hormone cortisol after participants engaged in focused interactions with their emotional support animal for 10-minute periods. And the highest oxytocin increase was seen at the 12-month mark, suggesting that participants’ bond with their dog or cat had strengthened over time.

The study highlights the value of emotional support animals — and all pets — for human health.

“We have seen a significant increase in social isolation because of Covid-19, particularly among those most vulnerable to its effects. While our research was initiated before the pandemic, the findings couldn’t be more applicable,” Dr Hoy-Gerlach said.

“For the individuals in our study who are living with chronic mental illness, being paired with an appropriate animal appears to have demonstrable positive effects on their well-being,” she added.

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