Share this article

For Nurses Who Want to Improve Self-Care, Try Adopting a Pet: Study

Doug Wintemute, MA
Updated December 8, 2023
Edited by
    You've heard of man's best friend, but what about a nurse's best friend? Discover how pets improve self-care for nurses and fight nurse burnout.
    Nurse greeting dog when she gets home from workCredit: Getty Images
    • In a recent study, researchers found that pet ownership may enhance self-care for nurses.
    • By improving nurses’ physical and mental health, pet ownership may also help combat nurse burnout.
    • Before taking on a new pet, determine the right animal type and adoption style for you and your situation.

    Throughout the ages, people have valued pets for their companionship. More recently, however, researchers have tried to measure the benefits of this bond and find practical applications for it.

    A recent study published in the journal PeerJ investigated the impact pet ownership can have on nurses. The research revealed that animals positively influenced their owner’s self-compassion — a regulation mechanism required for handling hardships and protecting against job stresses.

    “Pet owners had a higher level of self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness than non-pet owners, which indicated a positive effect of pet ownership on self-compassion,” wrote study first author Hu Jiang, a researcher with the School of Nursing and Health at Zhengzhou University in China, and colleagues. “High levels of self-compassion can promote self-care behaviors, which further promote individuals’ physical and mental health.”

    Nurse Burnout: Symptoms and Risks

    The COVID-19 pandemic worsened burnout in nursing, but the sad reality is that the environment hasn’t improved much. In fact, a 2023 study found that more than 90% of nurses reported burnout, and 61% experienced low levels of job satisfaction.

    Nurse burnout results from spending extended periods in a high-stress environment. Across the country, nurses are experiencing the negative effects of staffing issues, excessive workloads, and a lack of leadership and support.

    Once burnt out, nurses may experience the following symptoms:

    • Anxiety and irritability
    • Mental and physical exhaustion
    • Absent-mindedness and forgetfulness
    • Isolation and loneliness
    • Insensitivity and compassion fatigue
    • Illnesses

    Nurse burnout has a ripple effect that impacts patients and the entire healthcare system. Exhausted nurses may provide ineffectual care and treatments, resulting in more negative patient outcomes. Nurse burnout also leads to higher turnover rates and heavier workloads for the remaining nurses — a vicious cycle for everyone involved.

    Nurses, Pets, and Self-Care: What the Study Found

    More than 1,300 nurses were surveyed to evaluate how owning a pet affects nurses’ self-compassion, self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. The results showed a notable correlation between pet ownership and self-compassion.

    According to the study authors, “This could be because pet ownership can reduce individuals’ anxiety and stress and increase positive feelings of happiness and security, which may be a strategy for coping with stress.”

    The study cites previous research on a pet’s ability to improve people’s physical and mental health by providing social support and companionship at home and encouraging recreational and outdoor activities. The results indicate that by improving self-compassion in people, pets can also help offset the negative effects of a stressful work environment.

    “Self-compassion can shield nurses from stress and burnout for their own health and possibly for the health of their patients,” the authors noted. “Nurses often experience emotional exhaustion and are prone to job burnout and even compassion fatigue due to prolonged exposure to pain, but those with higher levels of self-compassion can generate compassion satisfaction, thereby reducing compassion fatigue.”

    Nurses and Pets: How to Get Started

    While the study’s results and authors suggest that pet companionship might be a valuable intervention strategy for nursing burnout, a furry friend won’t suit everyone. Pets can require a great deal of time and energy, which may not work with a nurse’s demanding schedule.

    So, before getting a pet, consider the following:

    • What type of pet will fit your schedule and lifestyle? Nurses might consider a lower-maintenance animal or invest in pet-sitting and housing services while at work.
    • Do you have any allergies? People with allergies to certain animals or breeds should look for hypoallergenic pets or breeds.
    • Do you have space or financial restrictions? First, make sure you can bring an animal into your house. Then consider if you should. Larger animals need more space.
    • What type of temperament would suit you best? Puppies and kittens require more care and supervision than mature animals. Before choosing, meet the animal and observe its personality firsthand.

    Once you know what type of pet you want, consider where to look. Use the following tips when searching for your next pet:

    • Avoid “puppy mills.” Also called breeding factories, puppy mills prioritize profits over animal care. Animals from these breeders can have health and behavioral issues.
    • Look locally. Meet the animal and handlers in person. You can also better track the history of your pet at a local rescue or organization.
    • Find animal shelters near you. Use the by-state shelter locator at AnimalShelter.org.
    • Search the adoptable dog database from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).