Brits have a long standing reputation for being pet lovers. There are thought to be around 51 million pets in the UK, with 45 per cent of the population providing a home to one or more animal. Dogs are the most popular pet, followed by cats and then rabbits.

Looking after a pet is a common practice in many cultures throughout the world, and has been for thousands of years. But why do we keep animals as pets? And does having a pet provide any health benefits?

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that having a pet may improve mental wellbeing.

In this piece, we’ll discuss this research, and the potential health benefits of looking after a pet, in more detail.

How might pets help to improve our health?

Many pet owners will say that their pet is more than just that, and is actually regarded as part of the family.  

So having a pet may obviously have some mental health benefits, because they provide:

  • Companionship. Having a pet at home may help to alleviate feelings of loneliness. As the population gets older, loneliness is becoming an ever more prominent health issue, with an estimated nine million brits currently subject to social isolation. This prompted the government to appoint their first ever ‘Minister for Loneliness’ earlier this year.
  • Purpose. Pets depend on their owner for food, water, shelter and interaction. This level of responsibility and purpose may help some pet owners approach each new day in a more positive frame of mind.
  • Exercise. Dogs in particular can often help owners to stay physically active. Taking the dog on a long walk once or twice a day means taking more steps on a regular basis, lowering the risk of cardiovascular illness. Walking regularly is also thought to be beneficial for mental wellbeing too.
  • Social interaction. Firstly, there’s the obvious interaction with the pet themselves (throwing a ball for a dog for example, or in some cases even talking to them). However some pets may also provide owners with an opportunity to meet and interact with other pet owners, which means more frequent human social interaction and, again, helping to reduce feelings of loneliness.  

What evidence is there?

One study from 1988 measured participant’s blood pressures while they interacted with a dog, however this produced conflicting results. Both lower- and higher-than-usual readings were recorded during human-dog contact; and according to the authors this seemed to depend on whether the participant was talking to or stroking the dog alone, or doing both at the same time.

A review of 17 different studies looking at the support provided by ‘companion animals’ was published in the journal BMC Psychiatry at the beginning of February 2018. It concluded that pets can provide benefits to those diagnosed with mental health conditions. However, it does also recognise that more research into the area is needed.

Another literature review concluded that animal companions ‘are good for us’. However, a direct causal correlation between pet ownership and human well-being was not established.

Some hospital wards have recently trialled pet therapy sessions, where pets meet with patients as part of their recovery. A survey filled out by 750 nurse participants found that 90 per cent believe that the presence of animals could help patients with mental health problems, including depression.

The other side of pet ownership

Pet ownership will not suit everyone, and it does come with some added responsibilities and pressures:

  • It can be costly to keep a pet due to the price of food and veterinary fees.
  • Looking after an animal can take up a significant amount of time and potentially reduce opportunities for spontaneity, due to the commitment required to keep an animal happy and healthy.
  • A pet will always need someone to care for it even if the owner is not around. Pet owners need to get help looking after their pet if they go away on holiday or have a medical emergency.
  • Giving a home to a pet may not be an option for some due to allergies, lack of space or a stipulation in a rental contract.

And the worst prospect of owning a pet is the emotional burden of coping with their passing. Saying goodbye to a close companion can have a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of the owner.

Should more people own pets?

The answer to this question obviously depends on individual circumstances. Caring for a pet is by no means a one-size fits all solution. However, for some people a pet could benefit mental health by injecting purpose to their daily routine.

The idea that animals can help us with physical and psychological health problems has been challenged. Further research into the link between looking after a pet and improved mental health using randomised controlled trials is required to provide more reliable clinical evidence.

It is important to understand the responsibility that owning a pet can bring. You should only think about owning a pet if you are certain you can make the commitment that doing so will require.

So, if you have a condition that affects your mental well-being and are considering whether to adopt a pet, it might be helpful to speak to a doctor or therapist for advice first.