Another Great Reason to Spend Time With Your Animal Companions: It’s Good for Your Mental Health

Pick up the dry cleaning, cook dinner, mow the lawn, go here, go there—argh! Life can be taxing. Add to that the endless stream of negative news bombarding us from our devices as well as struggles with work, family, finances, and health and other challenges and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and full of anxiety. If it seems like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, you aren’t alone—anxiety and depression affect nearly a third of adults in the U.S. The good news is relief may be just a cold nose, a gentle purr, and a wagging tail away.

We know that animals depend on their guardians to keep them happy. As it turns out, spending time with our animal companions helps us, too. A recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association revealed that 84% of animal guardians feel that their canine and feline companions have a positive impact on their mental health, citing reasons such as unconditional love and support, companionship, friendship, and a calming influence.

It’s true! Research shows that spending time with our dogs and cats has many wonderful benefits—for us both.

At a time when everyone seems to be more connected to their phones than one another, caring for our animal companions means stepping away from the screen and giving our full attention to the one we’re with. So put away your phone and take your dog for a walk, letting your pup pick the pace and route. Exercise, fresh air, and a change of scenery are vital for dogs’ mental wellness and ours. Meeting people and other pups while out and about can alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation and foster new friendships, which, in turn, can improve our mental health.

Devote time each day to playing with your cats—it will lift their spirits and yours. Chasing wand-type teaser toys, rolled-up balls of paper, laser pointers, and ping-pong balls engages cats’ bodies and minds and brings joy to their days. Seeing our beloved companions having a good time can brighten even the hardest days, giving us a much-needed boost of happiness, too.

Dogs and cats thrive on routine, and having healthy routines can help us manage anxiety. Daily tasks like feeding your companion, scooping a litterbox, playing, and walking not only fulfill our responsibilities as guardians but also provide a sense of purpose and accomplishment. No matter how we’re feeling, our animals depend on us to care for them. There’s no better motivation to get out of bed or to stop doomscrolling than a dog who needs a walk or a cat who wants to cuddle.

Most animals enjoy physical contact, as long as we respect their preferences and boundaries. Studies show that petting a dog or stroking a cat can lower our blood pressure and decrease cortisol—the body’s main stress hormone. Talk about a natural stress reliever! Try different kinds of touch to see which your animals like—many enjoy scratches behind the ears or under the chin or a light back massage. And be sure to include short and gentle daily brushing sessions, which can be as calming for you as they are for your animals.

What’s more, caring for animals fosters empathy and kindness. Research shows that acts of kindness can help us kick anxiety and depression to the curb. So why not surprise your animal companions with something special today? Books, including 250 Vital Things Your Cat Wants You to Know and Let’s Have a Dog Party!, both by PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, are chockablock with great ideas to make every day memorable.

Prioritizing quality time with our animal companions can help life feel a little less overwhelming. If you don’t have a dog or cat, consider becoming a volunteer dog walker or cat comforter for your local animal shelter. Or if you’re emotionally and financially ready to welcome an animal into your family, head to your local shelter to adopt one (or two!). Then go for that walk, grab that squeaky toy, or sit quietly with your companion curled up in your lap. You’ll both be glad you did!