The mental health benefits of pets

By Dr. Sue Samuelsson

If we have a physical or psychiatric disorder, or if we live with someone with such a disorder, we probably know that sharing our lives with a cat or dog can help us to get through each day.


Animals provide social support, stress relief, and many other health benefits. Their friendship is unconditional: they don’t expect you to hold conversations with them, they’ll never reveal your secrets, and they’re always ready for a cuddle.


” Animals provide social support, stress relief, and many other health benefits.”


A study on a group of New York stockbrokers who had dogs or cats found they had lower blood pressure and heart rates in stressful situations than those who didn’t have a pet. Another study showed that when conducting a very stressful task, people experienced less stress when their pets were with them than when a supportive friend or partner was present.

President Obama with dog Bo

President Obama with dog Bo


In the past, many people believed that children living with a pet were likely to become allergic to that animal, and that anyone with allergies should avoid getting a new pet. However, in recent years, a growing number of surveys have shown that children growing up with a pet cat or dog, or living on a farm where they have contact with large animals, will have less risk of allergies and asthma. In fact, infants in those families tend to have higher levels of some immune system chemicals, which is a sign of stronger immune system activation.

A happy professional with her pet at work

A happy professional with her pet at work


There are many known medical benefits to having a cat or dog. Playing or cuddling with them can elevate your levels of serotonin and dopamine, the nerve transmitters known to have satisfying and calming attributes. Several studies have discovered that heart attack patients who have pets survive longer than those without, and that Alzheimer’s patients have fewer anxious outbursts if there is an animal in the home.


“That heart attack patients who have pets survive longer”


Therapeutic animals don’t necessarily have to be trained. Just their presence is enough to calm and reassure people who are feeling anxious or lonely. It’s interesting to note that nursing home residents report less loneliness when visited by dogs alone than when they spend time with dogs and other people. That’s likely due to the fact that animals don’t judge!


The mission of A.W.A.R.E. Dogs Australia Inc is to support the use of all types of assistance and therapy dogs for the education, rehabilitation, healing, and aid of distressed ill or disabled individuals. This helps the person to lead a fuller life with a greater degree of independence and well-being. Their dog is by law permitted as a medical aid, meaning they have total access rights in any place which is open to the public.


A therapy dog is trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas, and to people with mental disorders, such as anxiety disorder or autism.


In Australia, the Delta Society’s volunteer therapy dog teams visit an estimated 20,000 Australians in hospitals and care facilities every week. Currently, that involves over 850 facilities nationally, ranging from aged care through to acute care hospitals for children and adults as well mental health, prisons and dementia specific facilities.


Don’t believe the old adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks! Dogs go on learning all their lives. Whether trained or not, therapeutic animals carry on reducing stress in people’s lives and giving them unstinting support when things get tough.




I’d love to know about your experience with pets and stress relief.




Dr Sue Samuelsson is a caring and dynamic vet in the Northern Territory, Australia who has had a profound effect on many remote communities around East Arnhem Land. She is the creator of i-Vet, an innovative online service designed for pet owners. Away from her busy schedule she enjoys catching barramundi in the Daly River.