Question: Are there health benefits of having a pet?
If you’re like most pet owners, you’re aware that your dog or cat makes you happy. But that’s only one of the advantages of pet ownership. It turns out that your furry friend can bring you better mental and physical health.
Health Benefits of Having a Pet
Here are just a few scientifically proven health benefits of having a pet.
Pets Ease Our Loneliness
Pets, especially dogs and cats, offer companionship and unconditional love. They can be there for us when no one else can, helping us through breakups, deaths, health issues, and so much more. They make us feel less alone in what can, at times, seem to be a hostile world.
This is a crucial benefit of pet ownership because research suggests that loneliness, defined as “perceived social isolation,” can seriously affect mental health, emotions, behavior, and physical health. Loneliness can even kill.
Numerous clinical research studies show an association between loneliness and the following health conditions:
- Cardiovascular disease (1)
- High blood pressure (2)
- Stroke (3)
- Impaired cognitive performance (4)
- Cognitive decline (5)
- Alzheimer’s disease (6)
- Depression (7)
- Anxiety (8)
Impaired immune system (9)
- Accelerated physiological aging (10)
- Suicide (11)
Social isolation even increases the risk of premature death from all causes, a risk comparable to that of obesity, smoking, and physical inactivity. (12)
That’s not just science talking. Pet owners acknowledge that their pets help with loneliness. In a national survey, 80% of pet owners said their pet eased their loneliness. (13)
Stress is a huge problem these days. Long work hours, financial difficulties, family commitments, and more create massive stress. And our faithful dog or cat is there to give us love and emotional support.
Numerous studies offer direct evidence that interaction with friendly companion animals, particularly dogs, can significantly decrease cortisol levels, reducing stress. (14, 15, 16) Stress doesn’t just affect your emotions. It can negatively impact your health. Clinical research studies suggest that chronic stress can lead to suppressed immunity, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and more. (17) It can even trigger habits and behaviors that may impact health, such as increased smoking, accidents, eating disorders, and sleep issues. (18)
So, cuddle with your cat. Play fetch with your dog. As a result, your stress levels will plummet, making you feel much better, potentially reducing your risk for various health problems later.
If you have a dog, you probably need to walk your best friend several times a day. You may also play fetch, throw frisbees, and go jogging with your dog. All this increases your mental and physical health. In addition, there is scientific evidence that dog owners are more physically active than non-dog owners.
For example, a study of hundreds of British households published in Scientific Reports found that “The odds of DO [dog owners] meeting current physical activity guidelines of 150 mins per week were four times greater than for NDO [non-dog owners].” (18a)
Why is this important? Remaining physically active throughout life can significantly reduce your risk of numerous chronic diseases. For example, regular exercise is essential for cardiovascular health, as it is clinically proven to lower blood pressure, the number one risk factor for heart disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Regular physical activity — such as 150 minutes a week, or about 30 minutes most days of the week — can lower your blood pressure by about 5 to 8 mm Hg if you have high blood pressure.” (19) Research also indicates that regular exercise may reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure later in life. (20)
Having social support is crucial for physical, mental, and emotional health. After all, humans are social animals who thrive in relationships with others, including physical contact. Indeed, touch is especially important for our health and survival.
Research studies show an association between social isolation and a higher risk of premature mortality from numerous health conditions, including heart disease. (20a) Not having a social support network can even be deadly.
Consider this: According to Psychology Today, studies show that “Babies who are not held, nuzzled, and hugged enough can stop growing, and if the situation lasts long enough, even die.” (21)
Of course, your pet can’t hug you. But you can hug, cuddle, and pet your dog or cat while improving your health and happiness! (Let’s just say they provide pet therapy!)
In addition, your dog can help you meet new people. Dog owners typically stop to talk to each other at dog parks, on walks, and hikes. In this regard, they can help expand your social network.
Relieving anxiety is one of the crucial benefits of having a pet, especially dogs and cats, and for a good reason. Chronic anxiety and anxiety disorders can be disabling, and they’re pretty common today.
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States” and that nearly 40 million people — 18% of the adult population — experience an anxiety disorder in any given year.” (22)
Here again, pets can help. Multiple research studies show that pets can relieve anxiety. For example, one study found that veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome felt calmer and less worried than their non-dog owning counterparts, (23) while other studies found a link between pet ownership and decreased anxiety symptoms in autistic children and older adults. (24, 25)
One of the lesser-known benefits of having a pet is improved cognitive function. A study published in the American Behavioral Scientist found that companion animals can decrease agitation and increase socialization behaviors in those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Their caregivers can also enjoy reduced physiological stress from petting said animals. (26) Agitation is often considered the most disruptive cognitive disorder because it is frequently associated with increased rates of institutionalization. (27)
Research also shows that pet ownership and/or regular contact with pets are associated with better cognitive function — i.e., verbal learning/memory — than those who do not own pets or have regular contact with them regardless of age. As the rates of pet ownership decline with age, this may explain the greater risk of poor cognitive function at older ages. (28)
Fun Facts on Pet Ownership in the U.S.
- 70% of American households (90.5 million homes) include a pet. (Source: APPA) – (29)
- 69 million households own dogs. (Source: APPA) – (30)
- 45.3 households own cats. (Source: APPA) – (31)
- 72% of Americans consider their pets to be family. (Source: EY-Parthenon) – (32)
- 32% say they let their pet sleep on a human bed. (Source: EY-Parthenon) – (33)
- $103.6 billion was spent on pets in the U.S. (Source: APPA) (34)
- Approximately 4.1 million shelter animals are adopted each year (2 million dogs and 2.1 million cats) – (Source: ASPCA) – (35)
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18a – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-41254-6