Pets and mental health

The companionship that a pet offers is a great way to reduce anxiety and stress. 

*Last updated 18 May 2021

A pet can be a great source of comfort and motivation. In many ways, pets can help us to live mentally healthier lives.

How can a pet help my mental health?

Caring for a pet can help our mental health in many ways, including:

  • increasing your physical activity. Dog owners are likely to take their pet out every day for a walk or run. This can be a fun way to fit exercise into your routine
  • providing companionship. Pets can give you a sense of security and someone to share the day with. Caring for them can help you feel wanted and needed. This can be especially valuable for older people or those who live alone
  • reducing anxiety. The companionship of a pet can help to ease your anxiety
  • boosting self-confidence. Pets can be great listeners, offer unconditional love and won’t criticise you. This can help your self-confidence, especially if you feel isolated or misunderstood
  • helping you meet new people. Dog owners often stop and chat to each other on walks. But other pets can be a way to meet people too: in pet shops, training classes or online groups, for example
  • adding structure to your day. Having to feed, exercise and care for a pet can help you keep to a daily routine, which can help you feel more grounded and focused. It can give your day purpose and a sense of achievement.

Pets may also help with specific conditions. For example, people with ADHD may benefit from the structure and routine that a pet needs. Managing their pet’s responsibilities and keeping track of time – to feed or walk them on time, for example – may help them in other areas of their lives. Some people with ADHD are hyperactive – especially children - and playing with a pet can be a great way to release excess energy, whether that’s walking a dog or running around with a kitten.

Autistic people can benefit from having a pet. Pets provide the kind of unconditional relationship that can help someone build social skills and confidence. They can provide a sense of calm and reassurance if their owner feels overwhelmed. Autistic children with sensory issues can involve their pet in sensory integration activities to help them get used to how something feels against their skin or how it smells or sounds.

How can I choose the right pet for me?

You may have a strong idea of the pet you want – perhaps because you grew up with that animal – or you might not be so sure. When you’re deciding, consider:

  • how much outdoor space you have
  • how active you are
  • how much time you have to spend with your pet
  • how much money you have for vet’s bills, insurance, food, toys, etc. There are charities that offer low-cost vet care, but they are limited to certain areas and have financial criteria.

Animal charity PDSA has an online quiz you can take to help you choose the right pet.

What if I can’t have a pet?

If you can’t afford a pet, live somewhere you’re not allowed one, or you’re worried about having times where you’re too unwell to care for a pet, there are other options.

The simplest option may be spending time with friends’ pets, whether that’s walking their dogs, stroking their cats or cuddling their guinea pigs. They might be glad to have someone to pet sit for them while they’re on holiday.

If you’re missing having a dog in your life, you could sign up with Borrow My Doggy. They connect dog owners to local people who would love to walk or play with a dog. The Cinnamon Trust also needs volunteer dog walkers to help out older people or those with a health condition or disability that means they can’t walk their dog as easily anymore. They also need people to foster pets while their owners are in hospital.

Contact a rescue centre near you to see what volunteering opportunities they may have. They may need volunteers to exercise, care for and socialise their pets. You could consider fostering an animal if you’re able to have a pet on a short-term basis but can’t commit to one long-term. Some shy or scared animals need the peace and quiet of a home while waiting to be adopted.

Cats Protection and Dogs Trust both need people to provide temporary foster care for pets belonging to people fleeing domestic violence, who may not be able to take their pets into a refuge with them.