In the United States, it’s no secret that we love our pets. According to one poll,95% of pet owners consider their furry (or otherwise) friends to be bona fide members of the family.
As it turns out, having a pet also provides several research-backed benefits for both mental and physical health. These benefits range from enhanced wellness to therapeutic uses for people with chronic conditions.
While the benefits of owning a dog may differ from having a pet fish, all kinds of creatures—from crickets to rabbits—have been shown to have health-promoting effects.
The health benefits of having a pet may include decreased stress, improved mood, better heart health, lower blood pressure, enhanced immunity, and stronger social connections. Everyone from young children to older adults can reap these rewards, so keep reading to learn the goodness your pet has in store for you.
Studies have shown that having a pet or interacting with an animal can help reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. It may also help to improve things like social skills and focus. Here, we explore some of the various mental health benefits of having a pet.
Scientists attribute some of themental health benefits of pet ownership to oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone.” Interacting with your dog or cat has been shown to boost levels of this hormone, providing a boost in positive affect. Interestingly, dogs appear to experiencethe same effect when interacting with their owners.
Playing with or petting an animal has also been shown tolower cortisol levels in the body, also known as the stress hormone. By increasing oxytocin and decreasing cortisol, scientists agree that there are indeed some measurable perks of pet ownership.
One study found that individuals with AIDS were significantly less likely to experiencesymptoms of depression if they were pet owners, particularly if they felt a strong attachment to their pets. Another study saw improved levels of emotional well-being in adult cancer patients receivinganimal-assisted therapy.
Although we often think of furrier pets like dogs and cats when we think of companionship, it turns out that all kinds of creatures can be beneficial. A2016 study of older adults found that simply caring for five crickets in a cage for eight weeks led to a reduction in symptoms of depression.
Similarly, just the act of watching fish swim in an aquarium can reducesymptoms like lethargy in individuals with Alzheimer’s.
One study examined reactivity to psychological and physical stress (solving a difficult math problem and having one’s hand submerged in ice water, respectively) among pet owners and non-pet owners.
Participants were exposed to these stressors while alone, with their spouses, with a friend, or with their pet (if they had one). Those exposed to stressors with their pet present had the healthiest andmost balanced stress response among each of the groups.
In addition to stress, pets are known to help reduce anxiety in both adults and children.
The simple act of petting a rabbit or a turtle was found to improve symptoms of anxiety among adults while strokingtoy versions of the same animals did not. Even participants who stated they did not like animals reported anxiety-reducing effects from petting these animals.
In another study, children tasked with reading aloud had fewer anxiety symptoms and performed better whenreading to a dog and its trainer than reading to a person. This study demonstrates the potential role of pets and supporting education for young children.
While pets can help with a number of ailments through their ability to provide companionship on their own, some of the benefits of having a pet also relate to their ability to encourage positive social interactions with others.
For example, having a dog to walk can be a great motivation to get out of the house, exercise, and engage with others. Research has also shown that walking with a dog leads tomore social interaction than walking alone.
The socialization benefits may beespecially profound for children. Children without siblings may be more likely to participate in social activities and have increasedself-esteem and empathy when they have pets at home.
These socialization benefits can work wonders in the classroom. Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), for example, tend to bemore social and calm in class with a guinea pig present. Similarly, children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) exhibit more sharing and cooperative behaviors whenreading to animals than reading to stuffed toys.
Research amongvarious populations has found that pet owners havefewer doctor visits than non-pet owners. An analysis of almost four million people across North America, Europe, and Australia also showed that those who owned a dog were less likely to die from any cause than those who did not. The effect was even more potent when looking more specifically at death from cardiovascular disease among those who had already had heart attacks or strokes.
While these kinds of studies can only show a correlation between pet ownership and health outcomes, as opposed to determining that pet ownership directly leads to better health, they are certainly compelling.
Ahead, we look at some of the ways in which pet ownership may offer physical health benefits.
In the past, some people worried that having furry pets in the home with young children could predispose the children to allergies or asthma, especially if those conditions ran in the family.
Research now suggests that the opposite may be true. Infants who have a dog in the home are found to beless likely to develop allergies than those who don’t. Furthermore, infants with a dog in the home show overall stronger immune systems than those without dogs.
One study found thatpetting a dog for just 18 minutes raised levels of a beneficial immune system marker. Pet dander or hair may act as a type of natural immunotherapy, helping to explain this effect.
Recent research also suggests that having pets in the home may boost immunity in part because of the differentspecies of bacteria they introduce into our environments and how they interact with the bacteria in our gut microbiomes.
A number of studies have looked at the connections between pet ownership and a reduced risk of heart disease.
Cat owners are reported to be 30% less likely to suffer a heart attack and 40% less likely to have a stroke than non-cat owners. Similarly, a study that looked at almost 3.5 million people for more than a decade found that those whoowned a dog had a 36% lower chance of dying from cardiovascular disease than single people without pets.
On a smaller scale, the very act of petting an animal has been shown toreduce blood pressure, cholesterol, andspikes in heart rate. In one study, having one’s dog in the room had a more significant impact onlowering blood pressure than taking ACE inhibitors, a common class of heart medication.
Spending time with pets may help with both chronic and acute pain management. One study of fibromyalgia patients found that spending between 10 and 15 minutes with a dog oftenreduced pain and fatigue.
Individuals recovering from joint surgery have also been shown to require lesspain medication when using pet therapy.
One significant benefit of having pets is their ability to help us build better habits.
One example is the motivation to go outside and exercise that comes with having a larger animal like a dog. Studies have shown thatdog walkers get more exercise overall and are more likely toadhere to exercise routines.
Having a pet may also help with habit-building and discipline in other areas. One study looked atadolescents with diabetes and found that those taking care of and feeding a fish were more likely to follow their medication regimens.
Many pet owners are quick to describe feelings of joy, love, companionship, and loyalty when talking about their animals. Research increasingly shows that there are also significant health benefits associated with pet ownership.
Having a pet can lead to improvements in physical and mental health for people of all ages and health profiles. Some of these benefits include a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, improved mental health, a strengthened immune system, enhanced social interactions, improved pain management, and better discipline. As if you needed another reason to get a pet.
Ellie Ellias -Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice
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