Could furry friends be a salve to graduate student mental health?

Leo is my four-legged furry companion. He loves going out for walks (especially in the snow), chasing balls, chewing bones, and waiting under the dining table for scraps to fall during dinner. All pretty standard activities for a dog, except he’s not a dog. He’s a cat!


If you also have pets or have in the past, you probably don’t simply consider them your property and yourself their owner. Instead, many of us tend to think of our pets as our companions, our fur-babies, and as members of our family. We form strong emotional bonds and relationships with them, and frankly, we love them. With how much joy pets bring to our lives, you might not be surprised to learn that many scientific studies have shown that pets are good for our emotional well-being and our mental health. To find out what exactly pets provide for their owners that is so beneficial, Dr. Helen Brooks from the University of Liverpool, UK, and her colleagues recently reviewed data published on this topic in 17 scientific journals across the world1. The data on the more than 1700 pet owners, all of whom had diagnosed mental health conditions, showed that pets helped them manage their illness(es) by providing them with companionship, comfort, stability, and a sense of purpose in their lives.

With his dog-like personality and silly antics, Leo brings quite a lot of hilarity and happiness to my life. It turns out that as a graduate student, he’s probably doing a lot more to improve my quality of life than I originally thought. A recent study published by Dr. Teresa Evans from UT Health San Antonio in Nature Biotechnology discovered that there is a mental health crisis in graduate students all across the globe2. Dr. Evans’ research team determined that graduate students are six times as likely to have depression and anxiety compared to the general population, and that any given point around 40% of graduate students are experiencing one or both of those mental health conditions. To stack things even more out of my favor, female students experience anxiety and depression at higher rates than male students do.

1. Brooks H. L., Rushton K., Lovell K., Bee P., Walker L., Grant L., and A. Rogers. (2018) The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry 18, 31.
2. Evans T. M., Bira L., Gastelum J. B., Weiss L. T., and N. L. Vanderford. (2018) Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology 36, 282-284.

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