Any animal lover will claim their pet makes them happier and experts agree the human-animal bond can help people’s mental health.

The benefits of pet ownership include reduced stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness. For many pet owners, animals have been their main support during the coronavirus pandemic.

Psychiatrist Dr. Sofia Bauer said people who have pets are happier because animals have a limbic system, the part of the brain that deals with emotional and behavioural responses.

“When we are in a fight or flight state, the autonomic nervous system is uncontrolled, and we (function) with the fight-or-flight system activated all the time,” said Bauer, whose practice is in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, about 440 kilometres north of Rio de Janeiro.

“A kind look, a hug, a deep breath, can bring our nervous system back to a state of relaxation, and a pet does the same,” Bauer said.

Bauer said dogs are the most beneficial pet because of the way they express feelings and socialize with their owner.

Juliana Mello, who lives with her parents and her dog, Penelope, a 16-year-old Yorkshire Terrier, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said when she’s stressed, petting her dog calms her down.

“I was super bored at the beginning of the pandemic, and there was no one at home because my parents were going to work,” she said. “It was just me and my dog, so it was comforting to have her around.”

Mello used to take preparatory classes for medical school and spent most of her day studying outside her house.

“I had a routine of leaving the house in the morning and only returning in the afternoon, so I spent a lot of time away from my dog, but now we get the chance to stay at home together all day,” she said.

Nathalia Costa says her cats, Alaska, Flocos and Peralta help her manage her anxiety. (Courtesy Nathalia Costa)

Nathalia Costa, also from Rio de Janeiro, who’s diagnosed with mixed anxiety–depressive disorder (MADD), has found support in her three cats.

“When I start feeling anxious, my cat notices and gets closer to me, demanding attention and trying to distract me,” Costa said. “My cats can tell when I’m not well.

“The lockdown was awful for me. I needed to go outside, but I couldn’t, and that was making me insane. My cats helped me a lot because I was always finding new activities for us to do together, which kept my mind busy,” she said.

But it is not only dogs and cats that bring benefits. Giulia Fontana, from Rio de Janeiro, found comfort in her rabbit, Simba.

“When things get crazy, it’s always good to stop and be quiet by his side,” Fontana said. “I’m spending way more time with him than before. It’s been great to have a company in this moment of social isolation.

“He loves getting affection, and that’s why I created the habit of watching series and movies with him on my lap. That’s our favourite thing to do together,” she said.