by Dr. Margit Gabriele Muller

The amazing wellbeing benefits of pets, especially dogs and cats, have been well documented. They range from reducing loneliness to decreasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. However, dogs and cats are not the only pets that contribute to our wellbeing. Even more unusual pets such as reptiles, rabbits, fish, and birds can improve our well being considerably. Let’s take a closer look at those alternative pets and the benefits they can provide. 


Snakes are certainly not everybody’s favorite choice, but they can make very interesting pets. Research from the Curtin University of Technology Perth, Australia revealed that adults aged 65 or older with pets have a better purpose in life with routine and structure. This also applies to reptile owners, as caring for reptiles is rewarding and provides a unique sense of purpose. Caring for reptiles also improves public perception of them and helps to dispel prejudice of reptiles like snakes. According to Dr. Pasmans of Ghent University, Belgium, the keeping of herpetofauna during childhood fueled the lifelong interest in several prominent European herpetologists. Moreover, reptile hobbyists often have expertise that is a potentially valuable resource to support and inspire reptile science and research as well as captive breeding projects. 

The affection pets give us helps to improve our mood tremendously. Although many people believe that reptiles don’t show affection, reptile owners know better. This is supported by a study out of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia which demonstrates that lizards and iguanas recognize their human handlers and greet them differently to strangers.

Mental diseases such as bipolar disorders, with mood swings of extreme depressive lows and manic highs are on the rise internationally. Worldwide 46 million people suffer from this disorder which is equivalent to 0.6% of the global population. The National Health Service in UK uses snakes to help bipolar patients. What sounds incredible is actually true. Bipolar patients enjoy the massaging effect of snakes slithering over them. They enjoy the cold temperature of the snakes’ velvety skin, their weight of up to 20kg for a boa constrictor and the slithering itself. Manic patients often crave a thrill which is fulfilled by the snakes.


Rabbits are amazing pets. They can improve our mental health due to their gentle and calm nature which in turn makes us feel more balanced and relaxed. Rabbits are especially great for small children and can teach them important lessons such as taking responsibility for another living being. Due to their friendly and docile character, they can also provide good emotional support for their owners. 

Guinea Pigs

If you think that a guinea pig can’t be beneficial for our wellbeing, then you are wrong. Even a small mammal can have a positive impact on children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Guinea pigs have been shown to be more beneficial for children’s development than toys. A study reveals that a guinea pig in the classroom can help autistic children socialize more with their peers. They spend more time looking at the faces of their peers and engage in more physical contact. They are also less stressed and smile and laugh more. 


Although people often think that fish are a boring pet, they can actually contribute greatly to our health and wellbeing. A study at the University of Maryland found that older people can greatly benefit from having an aquarium. Having a fish tank is credited with an improvement in overall life satisfaction and relaxation of seniors. 

A study also showed that observing fish in an aquarium can be an even more powerful relaxant than several proven meditation techniques. 

A short attention span is one of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease and a study has found that an aquarium with brightly colored fish can make a real difference for Alzheimer’s patients. Their appetite improved and they had a better nutritional intake when dining in front of an aquarium. In addition, watching the fish helped them to focus their attention. Another benefit was reduced lethargy, less pacing, and a decreased need for nutritional supplements. Moreover, it helped to improve their cognitive function, ability to process thoughts and retain information span.

But that’s not all that fish can do for us. Teenagers are considered as one of the most difficult patient populations for diabetes treatment. However, researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Centers in Dallas, Texas, found that teens can better manage their disease when caring for fish. A group of teens with Type 1 diabetes mellitus were given a pet fish. They were instructed to feed it twice a day and check their blood glucose levels at the same time. (They also had to change the water in the fishbowl each week.) The teens talked more about their diabetes and didn’t realize that they were checking their blood sugar levels more frequently. Compared with teens who weren’t given a fish to care for, fish-keeping teens were more disciplined about checking their blood glucose levels, which is essential for managing their disease. Study participants’ levels decreased within three months.


Birds make delightful pets. They are ranked (especially budgies) directly behind dogs and cats in worldwide popularity. They are docile and can become very affectionate, friendly, and tame and become great companions. Just observing how they play with each other provides great fun and entertainment. In addition, it’s a real delight to hear them chirping from morning till night. Some budgies even try to mimic human voices. 

The same applies to parrots. They encourage even more social interaction as they talk frequently and like to make conversation. As they are very intelligent birds, parrots can learn to speak from their owners. This encourages owners to spend more time with them which relieves loneliness. 

Other pets

The UK’s National Health Services (NHS) uses chinchillas for people with dementia. They were popular pets in the UK in the ’50s and ’60s and therefore stroking chinchillas can help patients recover memories. Likewise, ferrets and tortoises were also popular pets in the ’50s and ’60s and can also be beneficial for dementia sufferers. 

The NHS in the UK also uses skunks to calm patients diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Skunks are similar in size and shape to cats, with the advantage that they will not immediately jump off someone’s lap and be detrimental to a patient’s self-esteem. Stroking skunks releases endorphins and distracts schizophrenia patients from the voices in their heads. And there is no need to worry about the famous skunk smell, because in general skunks have a cat-like smell and are very clean. They release their skunk smell only when they fear for their lives.


Although dogs and cats are the most popular pets, other pets have great benefits for our health and happiness too. Therefore, it’s worth considering other pets when trying to find your ideal companion.

Dr. Margit Gabriele Muller, leading vet and award-winning author of Your Pet, Your Pill: 101 Inspirational Stories About How Pets Lead You to A Happy, Healthy and Successful Life, available on Amazon