Having a pet can be a game-changing, life-altering way to shift your habits and perceptions in a positive direction and put your mental and physical health first. Cats and dogs, in particular, are full-on family and friends to many of us. The fact that they’re ridiculously adorable to look at is a huge bonus too!

Whether you have a diagnosed mental health issue, or simply experience loneliness, sadness, or anxiety (this likely includes everyone), here are 5 ways having a pet can change your world for the better.

1. You’re never alone… literally

One-person households are becoming more common by the second. We live in an ever-increasingly fragmented, individualized world. This means many of us wake up alone, come home to an empty home, and go to sleep alone.

Not wanting a human roommate is one thing, but a dog or cat companion ensures someone other than you is always there. You get physical contact and affection out of the deal (cuddle, anyone?), which makes for a far less lonely existence.

Not to mention, a pet will never interrupt, criticize, give unwanted advice, or gossip about you.

2. They push you into exercise and interaction

Animals are work, especially dogs. They need to get outside for relief and exercise or they will only add to any anguish you may be feeling. While feelings of isolation and lethargy are par for the course with many mental health issues, getting outside for your dog’s obligatory walk—possibly even into nature— can boost your mood exponentially.

Dogs will even boost your “social capital,” seeing as how they facilitate and encourage human interaction. People talk to each other more when there are animals present, in part because their dogs are already having a conversation!

3. They make you feel safer

For people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a tendency toward hyper-vigilance (always on alert for signs of danger), or paranoia, a pet can offer protection—real or perceived—against potential threats—again, real or perceived.

The simple knowledge that your pet will react out loud if your smoke alarm malfunctions, or if someone tries to break in, can really up your peace of mind.

4. They generate feel-good hormones

Studies have shown that interaction with your own dog (rather than someone else’s) raises your general level of feel-good hormones. These include: serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin, which combats the stress hormone cortisol. Petting your pup for 15 minutes can also decrease blood pressure.

A study of 600+ people, half of whom described themselves as having a mental health issue, found that 87% of those who owned a cat felt it positively impacted their wellbeing, while 76% said it was much easier to cope with daily life thanks to their cat comrades.

5. They’re the antidote to overthinking

Many people struggling with mental health turn inward, becoming obsessive or fixated. Pets can bring you back to the present moment and into your body (rather than your head), since their physical needs are ever-present. They can also make you laugh or redirect your attention to something fun, like a game. Service dogs can even be taught to interrupt deep thinking with a nudge! 

Bottom line: if you have the time and money, are not allergic, and can find a pet that suits you, it could make all the difference in your recovery and/or your general self-preservation.

Pets not only have a real physiological impact on your body and mind—they also bring much-needed joy, unconditional love, and self-acceptance to your life.

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