How Pets Influence Anxiety

Health Writer
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Having a pet can help lower anxiety levels and has been shown to help people with social anxiety. But when something goes wrong, such as a dog having chronic illness, pet ownership can actually raise anxiety levels.

The downsides to owning a pet

For some people, owning a pet can add to anxiety levels. Owning a pet, especially dogs and cats, requires time, effort and money. You must make a commitment to care for the pet, in sickness and in health. Owning a pet requires:

  • Maintenance, including brushing, bathing, nail clipping, feeding, vet visits, walking;

  • Purchasing supplies, such as food, bowls, leashes, collars, seat covers, flea medicine (collars, shots, drops, etc), toys and other items;

  • Extra time cleaning, including vacuuming pet hair and cleaning up accidents;

  • Making arrangements for someone to care for the pet when you are away.

When finances are tight, owning a pet can add a significant financial burden, adding to your stress. According to MoneyUnder30.com, the cost of owning a pet goes beyond the initial cost. When first obtaining a pet, you might spend the average of $365 for a cat and $565 for a dog. This includes the initial medical exam, spaying/neutering and supplies. This cost can significantly increase depending on the cost of the animal. In addition, you will take on annual expenses of food, medical care, toys, treats and other supplies. The average for either a dog or cat is around $700 a year.

In addition, one study found that when dogs have a chronic illness, the stress of caring for the dog is similar to the stress of caregiving for a family member. Those who are caregivers, whether for a family member or a sick dog, are prone to feeling overwhelmed and at risk for developing depression and anxiety, according to WomensHealth.gov.

Pets do help lower stress

But from anxiety, it’s a commonly held belief that owning a pet, especially a dog, helps reduce stress. But is that really true? Researchers at University of Florida set out to test the theory. They asked 100 families who owned dogs to come to the university with their children and dogs. The children were asked to complete a public speaking task and a mental arithmetic task, meant to elevate stress levels. Some of the children were able to complete the tasks with their dog nearby. Others did so with only a parent with them and the rest completed the tasks without any social support.

The children who had a dog with them reported feeling less stress than the other two groups. Saliva tests backed this up: cortisol levels in the kids varied based on the children’s interactions with their pets. Those who petted or stroked their pets during the tasks had lower cortisol levels.

Another study, this one completed in 2015, found similar results. Children who had a dog at home had reduced anxiety levels compared to children who did not have dogs at home. The researchers noted that social anxiety and separation anxiety were particularly lower when there was a dog at home. The researchers theorized that “a pet dog can stimulate conversation" and help “break the ice” when children were in social situations where their dog was present. Having a dog at home also provided a type of security, filling in when parents were not around.

The researchers noted that companionship with a pet can alleviate separation anxiety and strengthen attachment. They believe that oxytocin, a hormone that reduces anxiety, might play a role. Interaction with dogs might increase oxytocin levels which in turn reduces cortisol levels.

Children aren’t the only ones to benefit from having a pet. A review of 69 studies found that interactions with pets, no matter what your age, lowered stress levels. In study after study, anxiety levels reduced when visiting and interacting with a dog. This was even more significant when someone owned a dog.

When deciding if a pet is right for your household, it is important to consider both the potential for added anxiety and the benefits.

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