3 Ways To Get the Mental Health Benefits of Pet Ownership Without, Y’Know, Getting a Pet

There’s no better excuse for adopting a pet than “it’ll help me a survive a pandemic.” I assume this is why my neighborhood has been infiltrated by puppies—no complaints here—and people are adopting kittens by the litter.  And yet, sometimes getting an animal for a pet isn’t a realistic option for those who have no time for the responsibility or strict landlords. Don’t worry though: a new study out of the University of York suggests you can still reap the mental health benefits of animals without fully committing to pet parenthood.

The study included 6,000 participants, around 90 percent of whom were pet owners, and found that an overwhelming amount of the pet owners were comforted by their animal companion during lockdown. This totally makes sense. But what’s interesting is that the human-animal bond didn’t significantly change whether it was a dog or, well, something that can be contained to a bowl or cage. Apparently tiny, low maintenance pets (your beta fish, your hamster, your guinea pig) are have some mental health perks as well.

The survey revealed something else interesting: The most the most popular, positive interacting with non-domesticated pets is bird watching, which explains why bird watching became such a thing early in quarantine, when morale was at record lows. As clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD points out, research continues to show that interactions with animals can reduce stress, anxiety, and feelings of depression, and you don’t actually need to own an animal to get them.

“For those who are not able to or inclined to rush out to adopt a new pup or cat, the feel-good benefits of an animal contact can be found in other ways,” says Dr. Manly, the author of Joy From Fear. “Borrow your neighbor’ pup for a walk, a cuddle session, or a late night movie pal, or offer to pet sit for a friend or relative who needs a break or is headed off on a weekend trip.”

Likewise, you might want to make use of your environment. If you’ve been booking more park time recently for take out food and friend dinners or even date night, you’re missing a fantastic resource. But whether we’re dealing with forest or an urban area with a dog park, Dr. Manly suggests that you be really mindful about your surroundings.

“Listen to the sounds of nature in your local park,” she says. “From bird calls to the chatter of squirrels, the sounds of nature are soothing to the body, mind, and spirit. Likewise, you can enjoy a dose of feel-good neurochemicals by watching nature videos. From ‘cuddly’ bears to horses, watching videos of animal antics can bring much-needed smiles without the responsibility of being a pet owner.”

And if you feel brave enough to keep an animal friend in your life for real, she suggests investing in a simple goldfish. It’s a solid pick compared to the murderous fighting beta fish, and with their bright golden-orange shimmer, bring cheer despite their low-key, low-maintenance style.