AVMA, American Psychiatric Association leaders discuss mental health benefits of pets

Coming home after a long day at work to an enthusiastic greeting from a pet can turn someone’s whole day around.

Eighty-four percent of pet owners surveyed say that their pets have a mostly positive impact on their mental health, according to the results from an American Psychiatric Association (APA) Healthy Minds Monthly Poll of 2,200 adults released this month.  

The APA and AVMA have once again partnered to help spread the word about the benefits of the human-animal bond in March. As part of that effort, AVMA President Rena Carlson and Gregory Scott Brown, MD, from the APA, answered questions from pet owners during a YouTube Live discussion on March 27.

Highlights from their conversation can also be viewed on Instagram.

Gregory Scott Brown, MD, a member of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Communications, participates in a YouTubeLive chat about the mental health benefits of pets with AVMA President Rena Carlson. Dr. Brown explains that he blows off steam by playing fetch and running with his dogs, Kai and Mr. Shef. “Being able to connect that way and having that steady companion is huge and can help dramatically with loneliness and keep you in a routine,” he said.

During the 30-minute exchange, Drs. Carlson and Brown explained how pets contribute to improving mental health and wellbeing for people and vice versa.

Most people are aware of the strong feeling of companionship that develops when interacting with pets, but this companionship isn’t limited to animals. Dr. Carlson said relationships with pets fight feelings of loneliness and often inspire owners to talk with others and share stories about their beloved pets.

Tending to the needs of a pet can be mutually beneficial.

“There’s robust evidence suggesting that when we pet our animal, oxytocin is produced in the animal’s brain and the brain of the owner,” Dr. Brown said. Oxytocin is a bonding hormone that fosters a sense of connection and wellbeing.

The physical activity that comes with walking or playing with a pet can combat anxiety and reduce depression, he explained.

Dr. Brown’s French Bulldog, Mr. Shef, is a certified emotional support animal (ESA), and he underscores what an important role assistance animals can have for people with mental health challenges. He has clients whose pets help them find relief from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Intentional moments with pets can help humans healthily engage with their emotions.

“After a hard day, one of the things I love is to come home and have my cat on my lap and feel him purring,” Dr. Carlson said. “It helps me process it better, and provides a time of calm, peace, and companionship.”

But before deciding to become a pet owner, Dr. Carlson advises for people to consider that this incredibly rewarding experience comes with some work and commitment.

She also recommends that pet owners develop a relationship with their veterinarian and talk with them about every aspect of their pet’s physical and emotional needs. These include mental stimulation, social interaction, and affection.

“The human-animal bond is a unique, evolving, and growing bond between animals and owners,” explained Dr. Carlson. “My role as a veterinarian is to make sure the animal has the healthiest, happiest, pain-free life that it can, to enhance the bond between owner and animal.”

Pet owners are encouraged to share a photo of their favorite animal companion on social media with the hashtag #Paws4MentalHealth and a message about how having a pet helps improve their mental health.

“Pets have emotions and feelings too,” Dr. Brown said. So, it’s crucial an owner has the time and resources to invest in their pet’s mental health and wellbeing, he added.

The AVMA has resources available for pet owners and veterinarians on the AVMA website. And the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has created a social media toolkit with ready-to-use graphics, Facebook and Instagram filters, and sample social media posts.