What Is the “Pet Effect?” · The Wildest

Skip to main content

The “Pet Effect”: How Becoming a Pet Parent Could Seriously Improve Your Health and Life

The psychological theory that a cat or dog is the answer to true happiness is one we can’t argue with.

by Sean Zucker
June 6, 2024
Young woman and her dog enjoying together rays of sunshine in a living room.
AleksandarNakic / iStock

I have no doubt that my life has changed immensely since adopting a dog several years ago. For one, I’ve developed an increasingly nonchalant attitude toward excessive clutter, hair, and slobber. Not to mention, the sight of destroyed property no longer gives me pause. Still, my home feels less empty, and my heart is fuller. No matter the day I’ve had, my dog’s always there to pick me up.

Sure, making plans has become a tad more difficult, now that my 20s are behind me, with this back pain, I usually welcome the excuse to stay in. Besides, that’s just part of the responsibility of caring for another living creature. It’s a duty that gives me purpose as much as it forces me to breathe fresh air, touch grass, and see the sun every day (because my dog and her bladder demand it). Overall, I’m simply a happier dude now — and certainly less stationary. 

At least anecdotally, I can confirm this feeling is fairly universal for pet parents. Whether they have a dog or cat, I’ve never met anyone who said their life got worse after adopting an animal. Pets provide us with endless joy, unconditional love, and the best Instagram accounts.

Pets are the one thing people from every belief or political ideology agree on and possibly our last hope to stop World War III. They break the tension not just between individuals but within them. It’s why I can spend hours in maddening traffic, but the second I walk through that door and see my dog’s doofy face, I become a baby-talking light of positivity.

Pets are the ultimate glow-up for your life.

In fact, there is a psychological term to describe this influence. It’s called “the pet effect,” a theory that claims getting a pet enhances one’s physical and mental health. While experts argue over the extent of its impact, most agree with some part of the sentiment.

The health benefits of pets are numerous—research says.

The term was first coined by Karen Allen during her time as a research scientist at the University at Buffalo. In 2003, her research titled “ Are Pets a Healthy Pleasure? The Influence of Pets on Blood Pressure” examined all prior evidence relating to pets and cardiovascular health.

By combing through existing studies, she concluded that having a cat or dog had a positive effect on heart health, noting their ability to decrease stress (and therefore blood pressure). In the years following, it appeared to ignite a slew of studies focusing on pets and their impact eventually leading to a widening definition of the pet effect. This new definition posits pet parenting as a sweeping mental and physical health elixir.  

Of course, it wasn’t long until marketing divisions caught wind of the concept. Notably, Zoetis, America’s largest producer of pet medicine and vaccinations, launched an entire 2017 advertising campaign around the theory, backed by research from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI).

Doctors agree: You should get a pet.

And it turns out, there really isn’t an exaggeration to these findings. “We’ve learned that people actually feel better, are physically more healthy, and human well-being is enhanced because of a healthy relationship with a pet,” Dr. J. Michael McFarland, Zoetis’s group director of companion animal marketing, said in a statement announcing the campaign.

The campaign apparently worked, to some degree: The Humane Society reports that U.S. households with at least one pet rose from around 74 million to over 90 million between the years 2017 and 2022. Unfortunately, the org notes that in 2017, less than a third of these new pets were rescues. Doesn’t take too much imagination to consider how this might have impacted the situation we currently face with shelters across the States overflowing.

The pet effect is far from phony.

“100 percent the pet effect theory does hold validity, supported by numerous studies, including my own, indicating that pets can positively influence human health,” says Dr. Jessica Maricevic, founder of Empathic Paws, an organization that helps promote and implement animal-assisted therapies. She specifically points to a series of studies that found the use of therapy dogs to benefit mental wellness.

One in particular, conducted by the U.K’.s Heriot-Watt University in 2017, focused on how the presence of a pet can influence one of the most naturally stressed-out demographics: college students. After trials with 132 university-aged volunteers, researchers found that just 20 minutes with a therapy dog significantly improved anxiety symptoms, mood, and their overall wellbeing.

A similar 2019 Washington State University study, involving about 250 American college students, discovered that as little as 10 minutes of interacting with either a dog or cat was enough to decrease stress by reducing the participants’ cortisol levels. And these are all only short stints of hanging with pets, so you can imagine the benefits of full-time pet parenthood.

Dr. Maricevic notes the innate human impulse to foster care for another living creature, providing the resources to flourish. “Ultimately, the human desire to be needed, to nurture, and to love finds a natural outlet in the bond with a pet, leading to improved mental health, a sense of security, and blissful contentment for both humans and their animal companions,” she explains.

This brand of nurturing helps us create and maintain healthy routines, as well. Dog parents, in particular, are forced to regularly go outside and get exercise to walk their pets (again, touch grass, see sun, etc.). Cat parents will still see their mental health boosted by their animal’s constant companionship and emotional support.

New York City-based neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez is a huge proponent of the mental-health benefits of the pet effect, noting that pets offer a brand of unconditional love that can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Dr. Hafeez adds: “The routine of caring for a dog, including feeding, walking, and playing, provides a sense of purpose and responsibility, which can be particularly beneficial for those struggling with mental-health issues.”

All of this compounds to give pet parents a profound sense of pride and accomplishment that will, in turn, create greater self-worth. Courtney Morgan, therapist and founder of Counseling Unconditionally, agrees with this notion, emphasizing how the human-animal bond may help someone feel less alone and allows them to “think about a living creature aside from themselves.”

Dr. Chandler Self of Self Care Psychiatry explains that she’s witnessed first-hand someone’s love for their pet save their life. “In my practice as a psychiatrist, many of my patients who are actively suicidal have told me that the one and only reason why they won’t take action on their thoughts is because of their dog or cat,” she says.  

Pet parenthood isn’t stress-proof—but it’s worth it.

All that being said, there are inherent limits to the pet effect, and not everyone will receive the same advantages. Pet parenthood is an incredibly subjective experience and some may find the responsibilities overwhelming.

“Although dogs often bring people a lot of happiness and joy, there is often also anxiety and stress associated with owning a dog, as well,” Morgan warns. For example, finances around being a pet parent can be a major stressor, especially if something unexpected comes up (get that pet insurance!).

And of course there’s the anxiety that comes from worrying over your pet’s health. I know for a fact that the worst my mental health has been over the past five years was when the vet found a tumor on my dog. They were ultimately able to remove it, and she’s fine now, but those fears still linger. The truth is when you give so much of yourself over to someone else, human or animal, you risk catastrophic heartbreak.

And it’s worth adding that one with health issues, mental or physical, should be looking at pet parenthood as an alternative to actual treatment. As Dr. Hafeez puts it, “The presence of a pet does not automatically solve underlying mental-health issues, and some people might still require professional therapy or medication.”

Personally, I implore anyone struggling with feelings of loneliness or stress to adopt a pet. It’s been one of the greatest joys of my life. Just don’t let this beautiful enterprise replace your usual upkeep, like hitting the gym, eating nutritious foods, or seeing a doctor somewhat regularly. Remember, your pet will always be waiting back at home for you with an extra dose of medicine just for you.


Sean Zucker

Sean Zucker

Sean Zucker is a writer whose work has been featured in Points In Case, The Daily Drunk, Posty, and WellWell. He has an adopted Pit Bull named Banshee whose work has been featured on the kitchen floor and whose behavioral issues rival his own.

Related articles