The Health Benefits of Pets

Want to be happier and healthier? Get a pet.

It’s easy to see owning a pet as another responsibility—or even a chore—but the health benefits far outweigh the added work. A pet can have a tremendous impact on physical, emotional, and social health.

The Emotional Boost of Pets

It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re greeted at the door by a happy dog with a wagging tail or when a purring cat is snuggled in your lap. Pets provide an enormous boost to our mental health.

This isn’t just theory—there is science that shows that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression.[i][ii] In fact, researchers have found that friendly human-dog interaction releases oxytocin—a bonding hormone—in both humans and dogs.[iii] Pets can also reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety.[iv]

Regardless of the science, there are a variety of ways that pet-ownership can provide an emotional boost:

  • Companionship: Pets provide unconditional love and companionship. They help keep isolation and loneliness—two hallmark characteristics of depression—at bay. Caring for an animal can help a person feel needed and wanted. What’s more, it can promote empathy and caring and help people shift from self-centered thinking to other-centered thinking.
  • Sensory Stress Relief: Touch has been shown to be important to mental health and well-being. Pets provide valuable physical contact. In fact, studies have shown that petting a dog can reduce your heart rate and release oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Touch and movement are both ways to relieve stress. Reduce stress by riding a horse, walking the dog, or petting the cat.
  • Social Connection: Having a pet can gently encourage you toward more social contact. Pets are natural icebreakers—you may find yourself chatting with other dog owners at the dog park or out on the trails. Many pet lovers make social connections in pet stores, clubs, or classes.
  • Responsibility: Having responsibility is good for our mental and emotional health. Responsibility adds purpose and focus to your life and can enhance your sense of value and self-esteem.
  • Routine and Structure: Many pets, particularly dogs, require a regular meal and exercise schedule. Regardless of your mood, you’ll always have to maintain a schedule to care for your pet. This can add healthy structure to your life.
  • Meaning and Joy: Caring for a pet can provide a sense of meaning in your life and boost your morale. Choosing to adopt an animal from a shelter can add to this sense of fulfillment—because many people derive meaning from the fact that they have rescued a pet that may otherwise have been euthanized.
  • Improved vitality: Pets encourage a sense of playfulness and laughter. What’s more, they require exercise, which can improve energy and boost your immune system.

The Physical Perks of Pets

Pets aren’t just good for your mood—they provide a variety of physiological benefits that can translate to improved health.

  • Activity: Owning a dog is a surefire way to build more physical activity into your life. In fact, research has shown that owning a pet is strongly correlated with being more active.[v] Dogs need walks and play—and that’s an added bonus for you.
  • Improved Heart Health: Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets. Pet owners have also been shown to have lower blood pressure.[vi] Having a pet—particularly a dog—reduces the risk of heart disease.[vii]
  • Allergy Protection: Children who live with cats and dogs from infancy are 50 percent less likely to develop allergies to them later in life.[viii]

The Big Pet Picture

Set all the science aside and it all boils down to common sense. Pets fulfill some of our most basic human needs for touch and mutual affection. Stroking, holding, or cuddling a friendly animal can calm and soothe us when we’re stressed or lonely. Our pets provide companionship, exercise, and even laughter.

Even if your lifestyle won’t support full-time pet ownership, you can still reap the benefits of animal interaction. Even short periods of time spent with a pet can benefit both you and the animal. Many animal shelters and rescue groups need volunteers to walk dogs. Some organizations offer trial “rental” programs or you can foster an animal temporarily until a permanent home can be found.

And even though dogs get all of the glory—because they often come with the greatest health benefits—there are other wonderful pets out there. Many people reap benefits from other furry pets, such as cats. Others find that an aquarium full of fish helps reduce stress and promote calm. Find an animal you connect with and start reaping the health benefits.

References:

[i] Stasi MF, Amati D, Costa C, et al: Pet-therapy: a trial for institutionalized frail elderly patients. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics. 2004;(9):407-12.

[ii] Siegel JM, Angulo FJ, Detels R, et al: AIDS diagnosis and depression in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study: The ameliorating impact of pet ownership. AIDS Care: Psychological and Socio-medical Aspects of AIDS/HIV. 1999; 11(2): 157-170.

[iii] Nagasawa M, Mogi K, Kikusui T. Attachment between humans and dogs. Japanese Psychological Research. 2009; 51(3): 209-221.

[iv] Beetz A, Uvnas-Moberg K, Julius H, et al: Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology. 2012; 3:234.

[v] McMinn  AM, van Sluijs  EMF, Nightingale CM, et al: Family and home correlates of children’s physical activity in a multi-ethnic population: the cross-sectional child heart and health study in england (CHASE). International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2011; 8: 11.

[vi] Centers for Disease Control. Health Benefits of Pets. Available at:

[vii] Levine Gn, Allen K, Braun LT, et al. Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation, May 9 2013 DOI: 10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1

[viii] Wegienka G, Johnson CC, Havstad S, et al: Lifetime dog and cat exposure and dog- and cat-specific sensitization at age 18 years. Clinical and Experimental Allergy. 2011; 41(7): 979-986.

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