My Dog Saved My Mental Health

Since April is National Stress Awareness Month and Pets are Wonderful Month, I thought it would be great to combine the two topics: mental health and dogs. 

Starting out in a new town, new school, or a new job is never easy. For me, starting medical school, it felt next to impossible to move away from everything I knew all at once.

My family was far away, continuing with their own lives. My friends were all busy and out of arms-reach. My job already had replaced me, and my parents had converted my old bedroom into an unfamiliar guestroom. When I got back to my “new home” after my first day of medical school I sat on my new couch. Exhausted, I felt the tears start to fill my eyes. Then, something familiar leapt up next to me: my pug, Mei Yi. She sat on my lap, licked the tears from my cheeks, and softly whimpered as she curled up into a very-familiar ball of love on my scrub-covered legs. Looking back at my first week, I am not entirely sure I would have survived if it were not for my 13-pound, snorting, wrinkled friend.

Animals do not have to be professionally trained to be comforting, and they do not have to speak English to be a listening ear.  Pets can provide significant levels of stress reduction in humans. According to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, while performing a study on stress levels in humans both with and without pets, it was found that pet owners have significantly lower levels of stress at baseline, as well as lower levels of responses to stress. “The study revealed that pet owners had, on average, a significantly lower baseline heart rate and blood pressure than other participants, reacted less on stress tests, and returned to baseline levels more quickly” (AJVMA, 2002). Aside from reducing stress, furry family members also can help humans battle depression and loss. A professor of veterinary medicine at Missouri University performed a study on pets and happiness, stating, “Our preliminary results indicate that levels of serotonin, a hormone in humans that helps fight depression, rise dramatically after interaction with live animals, specifically dogs” (R. Johnson, 2004).

My grandmother lost her husband to cancer after being married to him for almost fifty years. Her fluffy orange cocker spaniel/poodle mix did not make the loss easier, but she did help with the loneliness and grieving. I asked her about this, and she told me, “I would always curl up by him (her husband) while we were sleeping.  When I lost him, I felt the loss as I slept alone. However, my little dog, Punkin, began curling up at my side, right where he was missing from.” As she spoke about Punkin, she used descriptions such as “she lights up when she sees me”, “she goes bananas when I ask her if she wants to take a walk”, and “when I come home she is so happy to see me, she practically does somersaults”. It is not hard for me to see that her canine pal has helped her maintain joy and peace since the loss of her husband.

Dog owners have been shown to have lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as a greater chance of surviving a heart attack, when compared with people without a dog.

I know that my small dog not only helps me with stress relief and preventing sadness, but she also helps me stay physically healthy by urging me to take her on a daily walk, rain or shine. When I felt like watching Netflix instead of going to the gym, my little furry friend would sit patiently by the door, asking me for a walk. She kept me active. She'd hop at the door, run in circles, and then patiently wait for me to clip on her favorite leash.

According to Dr. Reeves, a professor of epidemiology from Michigan State University, dog owners “exercised about 30 minutes a week more than people who didn’t have dogs” on average (M. Reeves, 2011). How can dog walking improve overall physical health? According to the American Heart Association, dog owners have been shown to have lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as a greater chance of surviving a heart attack, when compared with people without a dog (AHA, 2015).

Our furry companions provide us with daily joy, comfort, familiarity, unconditional companionship and affection. Dogs help relieve stress on the days we two-legged mammals want to scream, help us wipe our eyes when we are alone and depressed, help us get up and move when we feel like being couch-potatoes, and they may even help us battle heart disease. Dogs may be “man’s best friend” but, to me, my dog is my “guardian angel”.