How Pets Can Boost our Mental Health



December 18, 2020

It has taken a global pandemic to get many to see just how wonderful of a companion a dog or cat can be, and the mental health dividends their presence can pay. Although most American families already included a pet prior to the emergence of COVID-19, as you may have heard, over the course of 2020, there has been an absolute run on shelters as people cope with isolation and anxiety and turn to the loving paws of a creature.

We lifelong lovers of pets know all about the powerful effect a furry companion can have when we’re at an emotional or mental low point, but a whole new wave of people is discovering it now. Let’s dive in to how and why dogs and cats seem to detect when we’re feeling blue, whether they intentionally try to comfort us, and how we can help our furry family members with their own mental health!

Do Our Pets Have a Sixth Sense About our Emotions?

Have you ever been at a mental or emotional low point, and without even displaying it outwardly, your dog seems to know? Perhaps your Golden Retriever came and parked next to you and gave you a concerned look with those soulful eyes and rested her head on your knee, or your beloved feline even sensed something was wrong and came and sat in your lap. What’s that about? Do dogs and cats really have some kind of special detection system that keeps them in tune with how we’re feeling?

Studies suggest that adult dogs have the emotional intelligence of a toddler. They of course pick up on obvious external cues we give when we’re upset, like crying and making different faces. But according to data from a 2016 study, our dogs’ being tuned in to our mental and emotional health goes much deeper than that. They can piece together images and sounds to get somewhat of a comprehensive grip on our emotional state.

Dogs also have the capability to smell hormonal differences, like increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol, when their humans get worked up. Some service dogs are even trained to detect an impending panic attack in their people when the person may not even be aware their stress levels are getting too high!

So…Do Our Pets Deliberately Comfort Us?

Dogs will almost always react to outward displays of sadness, especially particularly brainy and people-pleasing breeds. The journal Animal Cognition published results of a study in which dogs were placed before someone humming—a sound likely novel to them, one that would theoretically pique their interest—and someone crying. Their reactions were observed. Eighty-three percent of them went to the crying person.

If you experience chronic depression, a pug, bulldog, or spaniel might just be a balm for your soul. These breeds have a particular mix of unconditional love, energy, and a people-pleasing nature, and are listed as the best companions for those with depression.

What about cats? Do they deliberately comfort us when we experience mental and emotional strife? In the most on-brand bit of cat data imaginable, the science says…not so much. Our beloved but often aloof felines have not been domesticated for as long as dogs, so as a species they’re generally not as companionable or in sync with human emotions as dogs. Anecdotal evidence from a small study suggests that cats likely do notice when their human is sad. Like dogs, they can read our facial indicators and if there’s a close bond, can tell something’s up if our behavior and body language changes. But if they, say, come snuggle up with us when we’re crying, they’re more likely to be doing it because they may think there’s warmth, petting, or treats in it for them, not to comfort us deliberately.

Help Your Pet with Her own Mental Health

We owe it to our furry little ones to keep an eye on their mental health as they keep an eye on ours. Dogs’ and cats’ brains are more complex than you may think. They can experience just about as much emotional complexity as we can—including things like anxiety, depression, and grief. If your pet is displaying unusual behavior, such as excessive licking or avoiding things they usually enjoy, it’s time to tune in to their mental health. Exercise and sensory enrichment are great in such a situation. Like making sure you’re giving your dog enough opportunity to be outside and use her senses and playing mental enrichment games with your cat.

Dog insurance or cat insurance can be a gift to you both, as Bivvy protects your pocketbook by allowing you to take your dog or cat of any size, age, or breed, to any vet and receive some TLC if they’re experiencing mental or physical woes.

Pets = Mental Health Booster

Just like those who’ve adopted pets during COVID are experiencing, having a furry friend has incredible mental health payoffs. They teach us to be altruistic, to care for someone other than ourselves. They get us active and into the outdoors. They give us a sense of purpose. They relax us. There’s loads of scientific data that shows that having a pet can lead to improved mental health, AND physical health, like by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.

And nip another potential stressor in the bud with Bivvy pet insurance! For less than $1 per month, your cat or dog will be insured for new, unexpected accidents and illnesses. Protect the one who looks after you with pet insurance, and with lots of love and appreciation for all they do to improve our mental health.