Health Benefits of Pets
Pets bring many joys to the people who own them, including companionship and affection. But did you know they may also improve our health? Studies show that having pets, especially dogs and cats, reduces the risk of heart disease, and provides a good dose of exercise. They also lower the risk of depression, and boost self-esteem and social connection.
For example, dog owners who walk their dogs regularly and play active games with them can improve their heart health by decreasing blood pressure and improving their cholesterol levels. Walking also helps keep the joints healthy for those with chronic conditions such as arthritis, while playing with a pet can help stretch and strengthen muscles. People who own fish or exotic animals such as terrarium pets get plenty of physical exercise from the routine of feeding and cleaning their tanks or vivaria.
There’s a reason so many people own dogs, cat and other pet animals. Research shows that the human-animal bond brings us health benefits, such as stress reduction and increased feelings of love and attachment. The bond is especially strong with dogs, who provide unconditional love and loyalty to their owners.
A small study published in 2017 in Frontiers in Psychology showed that petting a dog boosted the owner’s oxytocin levels, which is one of our body’s feel-good hormones, and reduced cortisol during a stressful situation. Stroking or scratching a pet is also known to ease loneliness and anxiety. People who own pets also tend to eat healthier, lowering their risk for obesity.
Although studies are mounting, there’s still much work to be done. It’s difficult to conduct the gold standard of medical research – a randomized controlled trial – with people who own pets and those without them. So most of the evidence that pets have a positive impact on health comes from observational research or surveys.
A few studies have found that children who spend time with a pet are less likely to suffer from depression or anxiety than those who do not own a pet. Other studies have shown that spending time with a pet can help children with autism spectrum disorder calm down and focus their attention. Those with ADHD may find that managing the care of a pet gives them structure and stability. Other people who may benefit from a pet include those with dementia or Alzheimer’s, as well as those with conditions such as PTSD, rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic illnesses. Having a pet can also teach children about responsibility and time management, which can be useful when they enter school. For these reasons, some schools are bringing in dogs to visit sick kids in the hospital. However, researchers are studying whether this practice could expose children to too many germs. Other options for visiting kids with illness might be guinea pigs, who are known to have low shedding and odor, or rabbits, which are considered very friendly and social. These animals do not require much specialized care and can be a great comfort for children who are hospitalized or undergoing treatment.