We’re a nation of pet lovers. Dogs, cats, birds, gerbils, snakes, rabbits, even the occasional hermit crab… they’re all part of the family. Over 68 percent of North Americans live with a pet. Our furry friends bring us joy, laughter and unconditional love.
And for as much as we love our pets, they love us back – that big old wet slobber from the dog is enough to tell us that. But now science has proven that having a dog or cat can actually make us healthier, too. While it might be obvious that having a pet requires us to increase our level of physical activity, our furry friends can also help improve other components of our physical and mental health.
How Having a Pet Improves Your Physical Health
There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that pet ownership makes you happier and healthier. Call it animal magic… but just being in the same room as your beloved furry friend impacts your well-being. Let’s shed some light on the most surprising pet theories.
- Improved fitness. Pets increase your opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities, leading to a healthier and more active lifestyle. According to a study in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health, dog owners walk more than non-owners and are 54 percent more likely to meet the recommended levels of physical activity. All those evening walks and games of fetch add up. Who needs a gym membership when you have Fido as an exercise partner?
- Cardiac care. In 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) concluded that having a pet, particularly a dog, reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. The AHA reviewed numerous studies examining the effects of pet ownership on cardiovascular disease risk, including one conducted by the Baker Medical Research Institute in Australia, which found that people who have animals had lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol. And don’t worry cat lovers, it’s not just dogs that reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that cat owners were 40 percent less likely to suffer a fatal heart attack than non-cat owners. Why? People who pet their cats experience less stress and anxiety.
- A stronger immune system. Several studies indicate that when children are exposed to pets early in life it can help strengthen and boost their immune systems. A report in the Journal of Pediatrics says that babies who grow up in homes with a pet are less likely to get sick than children who live pet-free. A pet lowers a baby’s risk of coughs and sniffles in the first year, and the presence of pets has also been linked to a lower risk of allergies among babies. Researchers believe that exposure to pets – and especially pet dander – matures the immune system, training it to fight off common allergens and bugs.
- Early health warnings. Is it possible that your dog can sniff out a health problem before it’s diagnosed? According to Italian researchers, dogs can sniff out prostate cancer with a high degree of accuracy. It’s just one of many studies that suggest that dogs can smell the byproducts of various types of cancers. Dogs have also sniffed out lung tumors, and researchers in Amersham hospital in England found that dogs could be trained to detect bladder cancer in urine samples. It seems that dogs are not only mans’ best friend; they’re good family doctors, too. Who knows… your dog just might save your life!
- Cancer care and prevention. Having a pet lowers your risk of certain types cancers. Research indicates that pet owners are less likely to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a cancer of the immune system –than non-pet owners. Other studies suggest that having a pet early childhood reduces the risk of developing thyroid cancer.
How Having a Pet Improves Your Mental Health
Pets have a powerful effect on people. They make you calmer, relieve stress and help combat loneliness and depression. Taking care of the family pet also teaches children and teenagers about responsibility, and some studies show that taking care of animals even makes kids feel more empathetic. The furry friends who greet us at the door wagging their tails, who purr and snuggle up at our feet at night, they provide an unconditional acceptance and love that improves our mental health.
- It must be puppy love. Spend time petting your dog or cat and chances are you’ll feel happier. Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests that stroking your pet prompts a release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, otherwise known as the “feel good” hormones. In addition, petting old Spot and scratching behind Fluffy’s ears also results in decreased levels of cortisol, a primary stress hormone.
- Pets promote mental healing. The social bond we experience with pets is powerful. They can have a calming and empathetic presence, and this is why dogs are often used in animal assisted therapy. For many people, the relationship they have with their pets is crucial in helping them cope with mental health problems. According to the Guardian, dogs create feelings of security, help foster social contacts and encourage interaction with nature. They can also help alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, decrease depression in the elderly and help children better cope with divorce.
- Improved social skills and life lessons. Pets help children develop a wide range of beneficial social skills. Studies suggest that kids who have pets have increased trust, more self-confidence and a stronger sense of community and inclusion. In addition, when a pet dies, it becomes a teaching moment to help children make sense of death, which is one of life’s most difficult lessons.
- Sunlight, nature and fresh air. Whether you’re taking your dog for a walk, riding your horse in the country or teasing your Tabby cat in the backyard with a fat ball of string, your pet gets you outside. And while getting outdoors increases your opportunities for exercise and physical activity, it’s also good for your mental well-being. Sunlight, nature and fresh air elevates your mood. Plus, sunlight is packed with vitamin D, which helps combat fatigue, depression and other mental conditions.
- Playtime. After a long day, is there anything better than being greeted at the door day by a wagging tail? Playtime with your pet can help take your mind off whatever is bothering you. It allows you to cut loose and have fun. Pets are good listeners, too – especially cats. Want to vent about your day, your boss or a recent break-up? Your pet is always there for you.
The next time you give your pet a treat, remember all the ways he keeps you healthy and happy… and then give him two!