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Do you find yourself arranging your weekend activities to spend quality time with your pooch? Or looking forward to being greeted by your cat’s miaow when you get home at the end of a long day?
If you answered “yes!” then you’re in good company.
According to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey, a staggering 65% of US households – that’s around 85 million families – own a pet. That’s up from 56% in 1988, the first year the survey was conducted.
What’s more, we spend upwards of $60 billion each year on food, supplies, over-the-counter medicines, veterinary care, live animal purchases, and grooming and boarding.
Whether a dog, cat, fish, bird, or reptile, more of us are sharing our homes – and our lives – with pets than ever before. But why is that?
Aside from the unconditional love, more than 25 years of research has shown that living with pets offers real benefits to your health. From boosting immunity to lessening anxiety symptoms, socializing and romance, the evidence is clear: having a pet can help you live a happier, fuller, and healthier life.
That’s why we’ve put together a list of amazing health benefits of pets. So whether you’ve always had a pet, or are thinking of joining the 85 million families in America who currently own one, there’s plenty to learn about embracing our animal friends.
1. Preventing Allergies
If cuddling up to a pup or kitty seems like a backwards way of preventing allergies, just keep reading.
James E. Gern, MD, a paediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says: “the old thinking was that if your family had a pet, the children were more likely to become allergic to the pet. And if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided.” However, his research is rapidly debunking these assumptions.
Along with a growing number of other studies, Dr. Gern’s research has suggested that children who grow up in a home with “furred animals” – whether it’s a pet cat or dog, or on a farm with large animals like horses, will actually have a lower risk of allergies and asthma than those who don’t.
Gern’s team analyzed the blood of babies at birth and after one year, looking for evidence of allergic reaction, immunity changes, and reactions to bacteria in the environment.
Infants in homes with dogs were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies – just 19% instead of 33%. They were also less likely to have eczema, a common skin allergy that causes itchy red patches.
Dr. Gern noted that: “dogs are dirty animals, and this suggests that babies who have greater exposure to dirt and allergens have a stronger immune system.” Strong immune systems mean greater resilience to basic infections like the common cold and flu, which can be vital for school age children.
While the allergy-prevention potential of owning a pet may not be helpful to adults with pre-existing allergy issues, this is welcome news for those who might be questioning getting a pet before starting a family.
2. They can keep your heart healthy
Having a pet can do more for your heart than just tug on its strings.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) have conducted extensive studies on the heart health of people with pets – and the news is overwhelmingly good.
Pet owners have lower blood pressure and a lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.
That’s because of something Harvard researchers call the “pet effect” – a nice name for saying that the very act of touching a dog (or cat, or any four legged friend) has a soothing effect that actually lowers the heart rate.
Dog owners are also more likely to have higher activity levels, which – alongside maintaining a healthy weight and diet, and avoiding smoking – is a crucial factor in avoiding heart attacks.
Today, the vast majority of cases of heart disease are caused by high levels of triglycerides and LDL or “bad” cholesterol, which causes fatty buildups within the artery walls.
These narrowed arteries put us at a much higher risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Interestingly, the Harvard study found that dog owners had lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-owners, and that these differences weren’t necessarily explained by diet, smoking, or body mass index (BMI).
Taken together, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels play a huge role in minimizing the risk of a heart attack.
What’s more, among those who have already experienced a heart attack, the research indicates that patients with a dog or a cat actually have better recovery rates than those without pets.
3. They Lower Stress
These higher recovery rates among heart attack patients with pets are largely down to the stress-busting capabilities of pets.
In one study, a group of stockbrokers who suffered from high blood pressure were encouraged to adopt either a cat or dog. In their subsequent blood pressure readings, those stockbrokers with pets had lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those who didn’t – even when their dog or cat wasn’t actually with them.
Other studies have shown that pet owners with AIDS were much less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. Researcher Judith Siegel, PhD. said that this benefit is “especially pronounced when people are strongly attached to their pets.”
Chronic disease isn’t a prerequisite for feeling the health benefits of having a pet.
Anyone – even the very healthy – can struggle with stress, which might manifest as trouble sleeping, anxious feelings, or the adoption of bad habits.
When we’re stressed, we get into what has been described by Blair Justice, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health as a “state of dis-ease.”
This is characterized by the body’s release of chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine, which can have a negative impact on the immune system. That’s why, when we’re feeling down, we are more susceptible to seasonal allergies or coughs and colds.
In his book Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health Dr. Justice advocates that spending time with your pet can actually elevate your levels of serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are known to have pleasurable and calming properties, and are produced naturally by the body when you do something that makes you feel good.
For those with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, pets play a particularly important role.
As well as unconditional love, caring for a pet may give their owners a sense of purpose and responsibility. The sense of companionship offered by pets of all kinds is known to combat feelings of loneliness, which can really boost your mood.
The ability of pets to bring joy and happiness to people, especially the elderly and the sick, is being increasingly recognized and has led to a rise in Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) or Pet-Facilitated Therapy (PFT) in nursing homes and hospitals.
Even outside of these environments, with an animal in the home, people with Alzheimer’s Disease are thought to have fewer anxious outbursts.
4. They can help you lose weight and get fit
This is especially true for dogs, the majority of which need walking several times a day, every day.
Having a reason to get outside – whether rain or shine – is a great motivator to lose that extra weight and boost those fitness levels.
According to a study by the Wellness Institute at Northwest Memorial Hospital, walking your dog reaps all kinds of rewards, including losing – or maintaining – weight. Another survey, this time by the National Institute of Health, supports this.
Among the more than 2,000 adults who were involved in the study, those owners who were responsible for walking their dogs were less likely to be obese than those who passed the duty off to someone else (or didn’t own dogs at all).
While smaller dogs might only need short walks each day, medium-to-larger breeds have the stamina to support you in all of your active pursuits. In fact, certain breeds – like Greyhounds, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and Doberman Pinschers – are best suited to owners who are cross-country runners, marathoners, and triathletes.
Even if you aren’t in that fitness category, jogging or running intervals, hiking, or playing fetch at the park are all pup-friendly activities that can help to raise your heart rate and your energy levels.
Setting a daily routine with your dog will help keep you accountable for going out, getting active, and smashing your goals.
They make great fitness trainers, because the more you walk or run with your pup, the more they will expect from you!
5. They can help your social life
One of the reasons pets are so good for those with mental health issues is because they offer a sense of companionship.
But did you know, pets can also help you meet other people – whether new friends, or even a significant other?
Research by the Harvard Medical School has found that pets can help to create and facilitate human-to-human friendships and social support, both of which are good for long-term health. “I didn’t meet many people when I moved into my new neighborhood,” says Dr. Elizabeth Frates, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. “But that changed when we got Reesee, our goldendoodle. She opened the door to a new universe of people.”
But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that it’s just dogs who facilitate these social connections.
A 2015 study shows that other kinds of pets, including cats, rabbits, and snakes, can also be catalysts for making friends and finding social support.
Being a pet owner was the third-most common way that survey respondents said they met people in their neighborhoods (behind being neighbors; and using local streets and parks).
Pet owners were also 60% more likely to get to know people in their neighborhoods they hadn’t known before than those who didn’t own pets.
Starting a dog-play group in your neighborhood is a great way to meet others if you’re new to the area – or find that those who live near you have moved and been replaced by others. Dr. Frates organized a morning meet-up for 15 women and their dogs when she moved to a new place, and developed some true and long-lasting friendships as a result.
According to the UK Mental Health Foundation, even passing conversations or greetings with other dog owners help owners stay socially connected and feel less withdrawn. This is especially relevant for older people, who benefit from the companionship and sense of purpose offered by a pet, and often live alone.
Beyond friendships, people have also reported that having a pet has helped them to meet a new romantic partner. That’s because the kind of areas where people with pets meet at dog parks, meet-ups, or even at veterinary clinics, facilitate deeper conversations between people who already have a mutual interest.
Walking the dogs is a great ice-breaker, but it can also be a fun first date!
In the case of people with autism, animals can reduce stereotyped behavior, lessen sensory sensitivity, and increase the desire and ability to connect socially with others. For those with ADHD, pets can be great listeners, offer unconditional love, and will not criticize a child for having too much energy – which can have a profound impact on their self-confidence.
Whether you already own a pet, are considering getting one, or had never thought about it before – I think you’ll agree that pets are pretty amazing. Whether for your physical or mental health, the benefits of owning a pet are extensive – and the joy and happiness they bring is infectious!
Do you own a pet? Have they helped you to meet new people, overcome mental health issues, or lose weight and get fit? Please share your experience with us and inspire others!