University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

Pets and Mental Health

Every Wednesday and Sunday I get a call from an older gentleman letting me know that he is OK and his cat Frederick is OK.

Illustration credit: James Heimer

Every Wednesday and Sunday I get a call from an older gentleman letting me know that he is OK and his cat Frederick is OK. He calls because he is afraid that if something happens to him, Frederick will be alone without food and water for upwards of a month. He has no visitors or family to check in on him—or his beloved pet. He is alone except for his best friend: Frederick.

As a veterinarian I know firsthand how much the human-animal bond can help many conditions, including our mental health. When you pet a cat or a dog, your blood pressure goes down. Some dogs and cats can sense when their owner is about to have a seizure or when their blood glucose is elevated and will direct the owner to sit down so that they can take their medication, or at least be safe if they pass out or have a seizure.

Likewise, pets can help reduce the effects of anxiety and phobias on our bodies. Pets can help calm an owner so that he or she can take a bus through crowds to get to work, or fly across the country to visit friends and family, or shop in a noisy store without triggering post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of my clients has a child with autism who, after getting a cat, was finally able to fall asleep to the sound of the cat purring.

A better night’s rest made it easier for this child to concentrate in school and at therapy sessions. And for this child, his cat is as important as the medication he’s given daily—even though the kitty wasn’t trained to provide certain supportive skills, but simply gives them naturally. 

We understand the effect medication has on our bodies. Insulin reduces blood glucose, blood pressure medication lowers blood pressure, anti-seizure medication minimizes seizures. But it is harder to quantify the effects a pet has on our well-being.

Likewise, you never know what circumstances brought a pet to their present owner. Sometimes a pet arrives after a close family member passes away unexpectedly. This pet then remains the only connection left to the deceased person and gives comfort to its owner just by being there.

For me as a vet, to be able to care for this pet allows me to indirectly care for the family, as well.

If you have a pet, you don’t need a study to tell you that your dog or cat or bird or whatever improves your wellbeing, and perhaps by extension, your mental health.

This past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the devastating effects isolation has on dementia patients and older people living alone. No visitors, no connections, no conversations. Older adults who had a pet to talk to and to care for during this difficult year experienced at least a little bit of normalcy.

That’s because pets respond with love and support when there is pain and loneliness.

Marie Louderback (D.V.M. ’07) is a veterinarian at Minnesotans Supporting Companion Animals for Seniors and the Disabled (MnSCASD), a nonprofit clinic she founded to help provide affordable care for the pets of seniors and the disabled. For more information, please go to