Companion Animals: Can pets help improve your mental and physical health?

companion animals

When I get home from a long stressful day at work I am greeted at the door by two cats who are extremely happy to see me. When I have an anxiety attack my cat is purring by my side, licking my hand until I calm down. It’s no secret that our pets make us happy even on our worst days but researchers have concluded that companion animals are in fact good for our health. This is why we see animals on college campuses during finals, in hospitals and even in prisons.

Research shows that the presence of a companion animal has health benefits including improvements in mental, social, and physiologic health. In regards to mental health, owning a cat or dog brings routine based on their care needs which can often help people with depression. Other studies have shown that pet ownership seems to decrease coronary-disease risk factors involving blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides, among other things.

In addition, more research shows that a primary source of people’s positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation and easing stress.

“When parents look at their baby and their baby stares into their eyes, even though the baby can’t talk, parents get an oxytocin boost just by eye contact,’ says Brian Hare, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University. “Dogs have somehow hijacked this oxytocin bonding pathway, so that just by making eye contact, or [by] playing and hugging our dog, the oxytocin in both us and our dog goes up. This is why dogs are wonderful in any kind of stressful situation.’’

Another study shows that a companion animal can reduce both stress and anxiety levels [1]. As a survivor of domestic violence, the physical effects may fade quickly but the emotional effects are much harder to deal with. Having a companion animal can provide the support and love a survivor needs to heal.

PetsEmpower is a great resource to domestic violence survivors by providing access to short-term fostering for domestic violence survivors in the Greater Boston Area of Massachusetts. We give courageous domestic violence survivors a positive alternative to pet relinquishment or remaining in abusive situations with their pet due to a lack of options to place their pet. We allow owners to find safety for themselves and their pets through short-term pet fostering and later reunite, generating positive health outcomes.


[1] Psychosomatic Medicine, Sep/Oct-2002 (Sep/Oct-2002)