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How pets can benefit our mental health

How pets can benefit our mental health


Pets are faithful animals. As “man’s best friend”, they bring us happiness, comfort and companionship. They become an important part of our lives, satisfying specific psychological needs.


  • Improved quality of life, increased social interactions, and improved health outcomes are associated with pet ownership (McCabe, Baun, Speich, & Agrawal, 2002; Wood, Giles-Corti, & Bulsara, 2005; Headey, 1999).

  • Pet owners have lower blood pressure and heart rate levels than non-owners, lower blood pressure increases following stress-inducing tasks, and quicker post-stressful-task recovery times (Allen et al., 2002; Allen et al., 2001).

  • Playing with a dog or cat raises our levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are hormones that calm and relax the nervous system. When we smile and laugh at our pets’ cute behavior, that helps stimulate the release of these “happiness hormones.”

  • Pets have also been found to decrease the need for medical services among both elderly and general populations (Siegel, 1990; Headey, 1999).

Reasons for the therapeutic effects

1. Pets fulfill the basic human need for touch

  • Stroking, hugging, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm you down and soothe you when you are stressed or anxious

2. The companionship of an animal can offer comfort and help ease anxiety

  • Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, told Donna Jackel, a member of Hope to Cope, that “for one thing, pets keep us anchored in the present and distract us from negative or anxious thoughts.”

  • They can help you relax, practise mindfulness, and appreciate the joy of the present

3. Pets make us feel needed

  • The act of caretaking has mental health benefits. Caring for another living thing gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. If you’ve been feeling dejected and are seeking meaning in your life, having a pet can change your circumstances for the better.

4. Pets increase our sense of self esteem and well-being

  • Pets can be a great social lubricant for their owners, helping them start and maintain new friendships. Pet owners also meet new people in pet stores, clubs, and training classes.

History of Therapy Dogs

In World War II, an American soldier found a four-pound Yorkshire terrier named Smoky by accident and sold her to Corporal Bill Wynne of the Air Force. Smoky constantly was at his side for 12 combat missions, air raids and typhoons. When Wynne was hospitalized for dengue fever, Smoky, which lifted his spirits, stayed with him and other wounded soldiers in the “endless purgatory” of physical and mental suffering.

“There [was] a complete change when we came into the room,” Wynne said. “They all smiled; they all loved her.”

Soon, Smoky became the first therapy dog and visited various hospitals with Wynne over the next 12 years, until she retired in 1955. Smoky died in her sleep two years later at the age of 14, but she continues to inspire other men and women to use their own canine companions as therapy dogs.

Examples of application of therapy dogs

1. The Centre for Mental Health ran an evaluation on therapy dogs in prisons. “I don’t know what it is, but even when I am running around with [the dog] I just feel better inside, calmer, more peaceful,” said one prisoner. Another told the interviewer: “Dogs have a magic effect on you, you can feel their love and that just makes you feel better.”

2. Retirement home residents in Aliso Viejo, California, playing with therapy dogs brought by female volunteers.

Photograph: Marmaduke St John/Alamy

The Hong Kong Therapy Dog Association

  • The non-profit organization visits groups of needy people

  • Special or on-call therapy dog services would be arranged to needy individuals on a case-by-case basis.

  • They visit schools to conduct seminars, introducing their missions and visions and their unconditional therapy dog services to serve the community



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