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Pets May Help Reduce Anxiety & Depression in Young Adults: Effects of Dog & Cat Ownership (2024 Study)

In the kaleidoscope of mental health solutions, companion animals emerge as silent yet profoundly impactful healers, particularly for the youth navigating the tumultuous journey from adolescence to adulthood.

The bond between young adults and their furry companions—dogs and cats alike—extends beyond mere companionship, touching the realms of emotional and psychological well-being.

A recent study evaluates the nuanced ways pets contribute to managing anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges, revealing a complex interplay of mechanisms that facilitate these positive outcomes.


  1. Prevalence of Mental Health Issues: Approximately 75% of mental health disorders are diagnosed by the end of young adulthood, highlighting this period as crucial for effective mental health interventions.
  2. Role of Pets: Pets, particularly dogs and cats, play a significant role in alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression among young adults, offering comfort, distraction, and a sense of security.
  3. Mechanisms of Impact: The positive effects of pets on mental health are mediated through a variety of mechanisms, including emotional regulation, increased physical activity, social support, and providing a sense of purpose and responsibility.
  4. Considerations for Mental Health Care: The findings underscore the potential of integrating pets into mental health care plans, advocating for a holistic approach that considers the individual’s circumstances and the welfare of the pet.

Source: Frontiers in Psychiatry (2024)

The Evolution of Pet Ownership: History & Health

The relationship between humans and animals has evolved significantly over millennia, from one of utility to companionship, shaping the fabric of societies and influencing health and wellness trends globally.

Understanding the history of pet ownership, current trends in human-animal relationships, and the rationale for researching the mental health impact of companion pets reveals much about our societal evolution and the increasingly recognized benefits of this unique bond.

Historical Perspectives

Historically, the domestication of animals began as a means of utility—dogs for hunting and protection, cats for pest control, and various other animals for work, transportation, and food.

However, over time, the roles of many animals transitioned from purely functional to companions and members of the family.

Ancient Egyptian society revered cats, immortalizing them in art and considering them protectors of the home.

Similarly, dogs have been found buried alongside humans over 14,000 years ago, indicating a deep bond between canines and humans even in prehistoric times.

This transition reflects a deepening understanding and appreciation of the emotional and social support animals can provide.

Current Trends in Pet Ownership

In recent years, pet ownership has surged, with pets increasingly being viewed as integral family members.

This shift is reflected in the booming pet industry, advances in pet care, and the growing presence of pets in social media, showcasing the depth of human-animal connections.

The trend towards humanization of pets has led to increased attention on their health, well-being, and rights, mirroring societal shifts towards more compassionate and empathetic perspectives towards animals.

Furthermore, the rise in single-person households and aging populations in many countries has contributed to greater pet ownership, with many people seeking companionship and the emotional support pets offer.

Why Research the Mental Health Impact of Companion Pets?

The exploration into the mental health benefits of pet ownership is driven by critical societal and health trends that highlight the urgency and significance of this research area.

  • Prevalence of Mental Health Issues: With mental health disorders on the rise globally, there is an urgent need to explore and identify a broad range of therapeutic options and preventive measures. Pets offer a natural avenue for exploration given their widespread presence in homes around the world.
  • Holistic Health Approaches: The increasing recognition of holistic approaches to health, which consider emotional, social, and environmental factors, aligns with the multifaceted benefits pets can provide, including stress relief, companionship, and physical activity.
  • Social & Emotional Support: In an era of increasing social isolation and loneliness, pets can play a critical role in providing unwavering support and companionship, filling an emotional gap that is sometimes difficult to achieve through human relationships alone.
  • Physical Health Correlations: Alongside mental health, pets have been linked to various physical health benefits, such as lowered blood pressure and reduced risk of heart disease, suggesting a complex interplay between physical and mental wellness facilitated by pet ownership.
  • Public Health Potential: Understanding the mental health benefits of pets can inform public health policies and community planning, such as incorporating pet-friendly spaces and programs to enhance community well-being.
  • Economic Considerations: The potential for pets to mitigate mental health issues also presents economic implications, reducing healthcare costs associated with mental illness through preventive care and enhanced quality of life.

Major Findings: Effects of Pet Ownership on Anxiety & Depression in Young Adults from UK (2024)

Hawkins et al. assessed the impact of companion animals on the mental health of 16 young adults in the UK (ages 18-26 years) who had a dog, cat, or both – and experienced anxiety or depression.

The research identified five overarching themes and one subtheme related to the perceived benefits and mechanisms of pets on their owners’ mental health.

Theme 1: Pet Impact on Generalized Anxiety & Panic

Mechanisms of Calming: Pets were reported to have a calming effect, helping individuals manage their generalized anxiety symptoms and panic attacks. Physical touch and the presence of a pet contributed to a reduction in physiological symptoms of anxiety, such as trembling and accelerated heart rates, and offered a tangible sense of comfort and security.

Mindfulness & Present Moment Awareness: The interaction with pets encouraged a focus on the present moment, acting as a distraction from spiraling thoughts and ruminations that often accompany anxiety and depression.

Theme 2: Pet Impact on Low Mood, Depression, Stress

Mood Enhancement: Participants noted that their pets played a crucial role in improving their mood, with pets providing comic relief, joy, and a sense of pleasure. This mood enhancement was often facilitated through playful interactions, cuddling, or simply the pet’s presence.

Sense of Purpose & Motivation: Caring for a pet instilled a sense of purpose and motivation, encouraging owners to engage in daily activities, thus counteracting feelings of low mood and lethargy often associated with depression.

Theme 3: Pet Impact on Severe Mental Health & Suicide Prevention

Prevention of Harmful Thoughts: Pets were perceived as protective factors against self-harm and suicidal ideation. The bond formed with pets provided a compelling reason to live, fostering a deep sense of connection and responsibility towards the animal.

Coping with Severe Mental Health Issues: For those facing more severe mental health challenges, including psychosis and severe depressive episodes, pets were seen as an anchor, offering a non-judgmental presence that mitigated the severity of symptoms and provided a form of emotional support that was perceived as unique to the human-animal bond.

Theme 4: Healthy Habits

Routine & Structure: The responsibility of pet care introduced routine and structure into the lives of participants, contributing to a sense of normalcy and stability that is beneficial for mental health maintenance.

Physical Activity & Nature: Especially noted by dog owners, the requirement to walk their dogs served as an incentive to engage in physical activity and spend time outdoors, both of which are known to have positive effects on mental health.

Sub-theme: Positive Outlook & Successful Futures

Resilience & Coping: Pets helped build resilience and coping mechanisms, supporting young adults through stressful periods, such as academic pressures. The emotional support provided by pets was noted to improve participants’ ability to handle stress and maintain a positive outlook towards future challenges.

(Related: Owners of Vicious Dog Breeds Linked to Criminal Behaviors & Antisocial Traits)

Effects of Pet Ownership on Mental Health in Young Adults from UK (2024 Study)

The primary objective of this research was to explore and understand the lived experiences of young adults regarding how their companion dogs and cats may affect their mental health symptoms, particularly focusing on anxiety and depression.

It aimed to uncover the perceived mechanisms explaining the impacts of pets on their mental health, providing insights for the development and evaluation of mental health interventions where companion animals may play a role.


  • Design & Participants: The study employed a qualitative approach, utilizing semi-structured interviews with 16 young adults aged 18-26 years from the United Kingdom. These participants were either dog, cat, or both dog and cat owners and had experienced anxiety and/or depression, with 12 having received a formal diagnosis of an affective disorder.
  • Procedure: Interviews were conducted online or via telephone, focusing on participants’ experiences with their pets and the perceived impact on their mental health. The interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using reflexive thematic analysis to identify overarching themes and subthemes.


  • Pet Impact on Mental Health: Pets were found to significantly impact generalized anxiety and panic, with subthemes around social anxiety and loneliness. They had a notable effect on low mood, depression, and stress, offering a sense of safety, reassurance, and distraction from negative thoughts. Pets played a role in severe mental health issues and suicide prevention, acting as a protective factor and providing reasons for living.
  • Perceived Mechanisms: Several mechanisms underpinning the benefits of pets on mental health were identified, including pet behavior (proximity seeking, responsiveness to emotions), human-pet interactions (physical touch, talking to pets), and the pets’ perceived consistency and non-judgmental support. Pets increased mindfulness, provided company and comfort without judgment, and served as a distraction from worries, thus modifying attention away from ruminative thoughts.
  • Well-being & Positive Outlook: Themes related to staying well and positive outlooks on successful futures were identified, highlighting the role of pets in promoting well-being through routine, structure, and increased motivation. Pets also contributed to resilience, coping with stress, and fostering a positive outlook towards the future, enhancing optimism and hope.


  • Sample Diversity: The study’s findings are limited by the predominance of female and White British participants, which may not fully represent the diversity of young adults’ experiences in the UK.
  • Qualitative Nature: As a qualitative study, it offers in-depth insights but does not establish causality or generalize to all young adults with mental health issues and companion animals.
  • Participant Self-Selection: Participants who chose to partake might have particularly strong bonds with their pets or positive views on the role of pets in mental health, possibly introducing a selection bias.

How Pets May Help Anxiety & Depression (Potential Reasons)

Pets have long been cherished members of many households, not only for their companionship but also for the potential benefits they offer to mental health.

Research and anecdotal evidence suggest that pets can have a profound impact on the wellbeing of their owners.

1. Emotional Support & Unconditional Love

Pets offer a unique form of emotional support and unconditional love that is often not judgmental or contingent upon meeting certain expectations.

This unconditional acceptance can be incredibly comforting to individuals, especially during times of stress, anxiety, or depression.

The presence of a pet can serve as a constant source of comfort and emotional support, helping to alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

2. Distraction & Mindfulness

Interacting with pets can provide a welcome distraction from the stressors of daily life or intrusive thoughts related to mental health conditions.

Playing with a pet or even just observing their behaviors can help individuals focus on the present moment, a key aspect of mindfulness.

This shift in focus can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression by drawing attention away from negative thoughts and worries.

3. Physical Contact & Oxytocin Release

Physical contact with pets, such as petting or cuddling, can trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain.

Oxytocin is a hormone associated with feelings of happiness, relaxation, and trust.

This biochemical response can help lower blood pressure, reduce stress levels, and improve overall mood.

The simple act of touching or being close to a pet can create a sense of calm and well-being.

4. Routine & Structure

Taking care of a pet requires a certain level of routine and structure, which can be beneficial for individuals struggling with mental health issues.

Feeding, exercising, and grooming a pet can provide a sense of purpose and responsibility.

This daily structure can help individuals establish a more regular schedule, contributing to better mental health by promoting a sense of stability and normalcy.

5. Social Support & Connectivity

Pets can also play a significant role in enhancing social connectivity.

They often serve as social catalysts, facilitating interactions with other pet owners or members of the community.

For individuals dealing with anxiety or depression, pets can provide a way to connect with others, reducing feelings of loneliness and promoting a sense of belonging.

Moreover, discussing pets or sharing pet-related content on social media platforms can further extend these social benefits, creating opportunities for engagement and support from a wider community.

6. Increased Physical Activity

Especially in the case of dog owners, the responsibility of walking their pet encourages regular exercise, which is known to have numerous mental health benefits.

Physical activity increases the production of endorphins, natural mood lifters, and can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Regular walks and outdoor activities with a pet can also increase exposure to natural light, which has been shown to improve mood and energy levels.

7. Enhanced Sense of Purpose

Caring for a pet can imbue an individual’s life with a renewed sense of purpose.

This is particularly significant for those who may feel aimless or struggle with self-esteem issues.

The dependency of a pet on their owner for care and companionship can foster feelings of being needed and valued, boosting self-esteem and contributing to a more positive self-image.

Conclusion: Pets vs. Mental Health in Young UK Adults

The study’s findings underscore the significant impact that pet ownership can have on the mental health of young adults, particularly those experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Through mechanisms such as emotional support, physical contact, and the provision of routine and purpose, pets serve as a unique source of comfort and resilience.

The results highlight the potential of integrating pets into broader mental health interventions and the importance of recognizing the multifaceted roles pets can play in enhancing psychological well-being.

However, the research also acknowledges limitations, including the need for more diverse and representative samples to fully understand the breadth of pets’ impact on mental health across different populations.

This study paves the way for future research to further explore the therapeutic benefits of human-animal relationships, emphasizing the necessity of considering pets in holistic health approaches.

Overall, pet ownership emerges as a valuable, complementary strategy for managing and improving mental health, warranting further exploration and integration into public health initiatives.


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