Can having a pet help reduce your stress levels?

Many people have observed that their stress levels drop when they have a pet. Various organisations such as Pets As Therapy and Veterans With Dogs have used this knowledge for years, bringing pets to vulnerable people, and seeing excellent results in mood improvement. Those who own a dog are also far less likely to die within a year of having a heart attack than those who don't [1]. Peer-reviewed science is now backing these observations up.

A variety of factors around pet ownership contribute to these results.


A dog or other pet that requires walking ensures that the owner regularly exercises, which is proven in itself to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. Exercise helps by releasing endorphins; lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels; helping to control weight; and improving fitness, sleep pattern, and cognitive function. It also permits continued mobility in later years; studies of elderly dog owners have shown they have a better ability to move around the home than non-dog-owners.


Owners usually prefer to exercise, feed, and groom pets at set times of the day, which can help to build a routine. A strong, predictable daily routine is a good source of personal stability, improves productivity, reduces worry about prioritising or procrastinating, and results in healthier sleeping patterns.

Touch is good for us

Physical contact with a pet, especially a warm-blooded furry mammal, provides many benefits for both the owner and the pet. Touching or holding an animal (or another person) causes release of the hormone oxytocin (which makes you feel good) and suppresses its counterpart cortisol ( stress hormone). This results in relaxation, pleasure, and bonding between those in contact. Reducing cortisol levels also improves bone formation, amino acid uptake in muscle, wound healing, stomach and kidney function, memory retrieval, and sleep.

Children in particular require physical contact for healthy emotional development, and can also develop empathy and motor control by learning to be gentle with a pet. Autistic people also benefit from physical contact, but many dislike or can’t handle the sensory input from touching a human; physical hypersensitivity means they may feel discomfort or even pain from the feel of other people’s skin or clothes, the smell of their cleansing products, the strength of a hug, etc. An animal feels different from a human, and the duration and type of contact is easier for the autistic person to control, especially with a small docile animal.


All pets, including less cuddly ones, can cheer their owners up with their behaviour. Plenty of internet content is devoted to funny and cute things animals do, from learning tricks to sneezing. Happiness and laughter cause the release of numerous chemicals which improve health, such as endorphins and growth hormone.


A benefit shared by all of the above is that the pet owner is distracted from ruminating on problems. While focusing on walking, feeding, or holding the pet, it is harder to focus on sources of worry. When coming back to a problem later with a clear head, it’s much easier to find a solution or process emotions about past difficulties, too. All of the health-improving benefits will also further decrease stress in themselves by reducing worry about becoming ill and by permitting increased activity and productivity.

Love and acceptance

Perhaps most important of all, an affectionate animal is a source of unconditional love. No matter what problems the owner suffers, the pet will always be there, and sociable species, especially dogs and horses, form strong bonds with humans. Cats are often assumed to be standoffish, but recent studies have shown this is mostly down to mutual misinterpretations of body language, though they do lack the separation anxiety that dogs might show. Birds will usually bond strongly with one specific human. Mice and rats, dismissed for centuries as self-interested vermin, will ignore treats in favour of releasing a restrained cage-mate and show affection for their human owners.

Fish don’t seem to form the same bonds, but some have recently been shown to recognise their owners’ faces, and even pet snails can recognise a “safe” human’s scent. Even if the pet is not of a type which forms bonds, it is just as important for the human to be able to direct their own love towards it.

In severe cases, pets have prevented suicides; knowing their pet will suffer if they are not there causes many to reconsider, especially in cases where a human support system is lacking.

Is pet ownership really for you?

This article is not intended to make you rush out and buy a pet on impulse just because you’re feeling stressed. Not for yourself, and especially not for anyone else.

A pet can be a huge source of stress if the new owner is not ready or equipped to take them on. Active pets like cats and dogs require training and attention, and may cause damage to your home before they learn the rules. Even small pets that live in cages need  daily attention, feeding and care. Some pets get you up at night and disrupt your sleep [2]. Planning and preparation are required before you take the plunge.

Before acquiring a pet, spend a week caring for the pet in your imagination. 'Right now I would have to be feeding/walking my pet' - that kind of thing. See where the logistical problems might lie. Thoroughly research what kind of pet would best be suited to your environment and think about your ability to provide for it. A mouse or rat which costs £5 to buy can still end up costing you £40 or £50 - maybe even more - if it needs a vet.

If it’s not practical for you to have a pet at home, you might be able to 'borrow' one and gain some of the same benefits. Other people's pets are like grandkids - you can have the fun without so much of the responsibility!  Offer to walk an older person's dog for them, visit friends with pets and 'have a cuddle', offer love to a pet in a rescue or shelter by volunteering there. Take your kids to a petting zoo.

If you do decide to go ahead and become a full time pet owner, make sure you choose a healthy animal from a reputable breeder or rescue society, and never give a surprise pet to anyone. When properly researched and chosen, the right pet and the right owner can be a source of joy to each other for years to come.



Author: is a professional stress management coach, specialising in working with individuals and smaller employers to minimise stress and maximise feeling in control.Debbie is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words and has co-written the Hypnotherapy Handbook both of which are available from Amazon.
Find out more about Debbie's services on  or phone 01977 678593