By: Sarah Zucker, PsyD

The phrase “Man’s best friend” exists to describe our beloved furry companions for a reason. Pets and animals, especially dogs and felines, have been meaningful to humans since they came into existence long ago. As a major dog lover (love is kind of an understatement), I’m very aware of the positive impact dogs have had on me personally. All of my dogs have taught me about love, loss, and companionship. A few years ago I got my first dog that was all my own (not a family dog). She’s an abused rescue who I adopted when she was three, and this little German Shepherd mix has taught me so much about unconditional, selfless love. When she looks at me with those soulful brown eyes, my heart melts to pieces.

Pets TherapyBut what is it, exactly, that makes us turn to mush when it comes to our pets? There is actually quite a bit of science behind the psychology of our attachments to animals. Turns out having pets is beneficial to our overall health on many levels. Just the presence of our pet, be it a dog, cat, or fish, reduces cortisol levels (the stress hormone), and increases serotonin. Less stress is obviously good for our mental health but it also saves wear and tear on our bodies. Being around pets, and especially petting pets (See, they’re meant to be pet, the verb is right there IN their title!) lowers the blood pressure of adults and children. Just the act of petting a dog can be so relaxing and therapeutic; it’s been proven to help people cope with anxiety. Dogs also assist individuals with Attention Deficit Disorder, children with Autism, veterans with PTSD, and men and women who are disabled. The benefits are pretty much endless.

Another very important point is that pets help fight depression. Although nothing can replace therapy or counseling for teens and adults when it comes to treating depression, some therapists advise their clients to get a manageable pet, which helps outside of the therapy sessions. Taking care of a pet gets depressed folks out of their own repetitive, negative thoughts and into action, which is an important component in treating depression. Additionally, experiencing the unconditional love that your pet has for you and that you have for your pet can awaken new emotions that are healthy and enjoyable. People with pets are also more likely to get enough exercise and get outside more, and both of those acts help to lift a depressed mood. Even hardened prisoners melt when they’re assigned a rescue kitten to care for as part of a prison program to reward good behavior.

If you have a pet, I probably don’t have to convince you of why they’re great. They bark for themselves. We’re lucky to be here in San Diego, where pets, especially dogs, are so welcomed and catered to. And having a pet is a great way to be social and connect with people. (People with dogs reap the benefits of more positive social interactions, which is great for mental health.)

On the treatment side of things, when it comes to depression and anxiety, (two of the most common disorders which bring people into therapy), San Diego has great counseling options for adults, children, and teens. A psychologist can also help you incorporate your beloved pet into your treatment. Therapy dogs are even becoming more prevalent in offices and hospitals because more and more people are recognizing the impact our K-9 friends can have. Therapy dogs help children stay calm while testifying in court, help reduce anxiety during evaluations, offer a nonjudgmental audience to beginning readers, and just generally brighten people’s day. While I won’t be bringing my dog into the office anytime soon (she’s a little on the strange side, and that’s why I love her), she makes me a better person and she makes my world a better place. What sort of pet is the best fit for you? What have you learned from your furry, scaly, or feathered friend?

By : Sarah Zucker, PsyD