Most animal lovers know how incredibly fun it is to own a pet. But did you know that pet ownership can have impressive long-term physical and mental health benefits? Studies exploring the health benefits of the human-animal bond have found that:
- Pet ownership, especially dog ownership, is associated with better circulation, reduced risk of heart disease and major cardiac issues, and greater longevity.
- Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than are people without pets. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet can help them out of a depressive episode, in some cases even more effectively than medication. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to be at least a little active, it is harder to stay inside and completely isolated. Pet owners are even less likely to commit suicide than people without pets, likely due in part to the sense of purpose and responsibility that a pet brings.
- People with dogs have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than people without pets. One study found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.
- Playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which are implicated in feelings of calm and relaxation.
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than people without pets.
- Heart attack patients with dogs survive longer than those without dogs.
- Pet owners over age 65 make 30% fewer visits to the doctor than those without pets.
- Numerous studies have linked dog ownership to weight loss.
- One study found that walking an overweight dog helped both the animal and the human lose weight. Researchers found that the dogs provided support in similar ways to a human “exercise buddy”
- In another study, public housing residents who walked therapy dogs for up to 20 minutes five days a week lost an average of 14.4 pounds in a year, without changing their diets.
- The physical act of petting your dog or cat actually reduces stress. Physical connection with your pet releases oxytocin (sometimes known as the “cuddle hormone”), which relieves stress and anxiety, reduces blood pressure, and lowers cortisol levels. Even the act of simply looking at your pet releases oxytocin in the brain!
- Research at the University of California at Davis found that Alzheimer’s patients suffer less stress and have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a pet in the home. The playful interaction and gentle touch from a well-trained, calm dog can help soothe an Alzheimer’s patient and decrease aggressive behavior. Alzheimer’s patients can be highly attuned to their caregivers’ stress levels; pets can help ease the stress of caretakers, which can in turn reduce problematic behaviors in the patient.
- Having a dog in the house helps expose family members to germs and build up immunities to illness. In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people without pets.
- People with dogs get outside more. Sun and fresh air elevate your mood, and Vitamin D exposure helps fight depression, cancer, obesity, and heart attacks.
Owning a pet is a big commitment and is by no means a “miracle cure” for any mental illness. Caring for an animal is beneficial only for people who truly like and appreciate animals and have the time and money to keep a pet healthy and happy. But for those of us who love our pets, the health benefits are a wonderful bonus on top of the daily joy and love these sweet animals bring to our lives.
Paige Fegan, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
*The research findings above were obtained from: