Maybe you have a cat on your lap as you read this. Or maybe your dog has his leash in his mouth and is giving you that cocked head can-we-walk-now-please look, which is making you laugh. Or maybe you’ve had a rough day at work and the ever-moving, colorful entourage in your aquarium is calming you, as always.
So hearing that pets offer significant health benefits probably hits you as quite obvious.
Or maybe you don’t have a pet. But when spring comes and you see neighbors walking dogs in the beautiful sunshine, quite often with smiles on each of their faces and happily greeting fellow dog walkers, you contemplate a visit to the local animal shelter. Or you’ve gotten a little hooked on cat videos because the shenanigans of those crazy felines make you laugh.
Pet owner or prospective pet owner, you just might be wondering can pets really help us be healthier? Or maybe you have absolutely no desire to have yet another creature to love and to care for, yet you can’t help but wonder how much (if at all) your health is missing out.
So, here are 12 things based on research you should know about pets and health.
1. A pet might help you live longer.
A study based on 70 years of research concluded that owning a dog has been associated with a 24 percent reduction of all forms of mortality. To reach that conclusion, scientists took into account the results of 10 studies of 4 million people in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom.
The study is considered “observational,” meaning it doesn’t absolutely prove that dogs can take all the credit. But it merits a report in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, and that speaks volumes.
2. Pets can be part of the essential pillars of good health.
Pets contribute to exercise, nutrition, sleep, positive social connections, stress reduction, and avoidance of harmful substances, the essential pillars of good health, according to Beth Frates, clinical assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. She recently shared the news at a Harvard presentation called, “The Power of Pets: How Animals Affect Human Health.” You can watch it on YouTube here.
3. Dog owners walk 100 minutes more per week than non-dog owners.
They’re also four times more likely to meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, set out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity per week.
4. Pets help your heart.
That extra movement, whether walking or jogging or playing catch with your dog, adds up. And when you incorporate physical activity into your life, your heart benefits. Your heart also benefits when you’re less lonely, which pet owners tend to be.
Not only does pet ownership help decrease the rate of first-time heart attacks, it also helps reduce the chance of having a second heart attack. A Swedish study found that dog-owning heart attack survivors who lived alone had a 33 percent reduction in death rates a year after their heart attack than those who did not own dogs.
5. Pets improve your social life.
When you walk your dog, you’re probably seeing fellow dog owners, with whom you exchange smiles and greetings and maybe even dog stories. One study, in fact, showed that pet ownership is the third most common way—behind being neighbors and using nearby parks—that people get to know their neighbors.
That contributes mightily to social connection, which, studies show, is good for long-term health. An analysis of 148 studies involving more than 300,000 participants found that people with solid social connections are 50 percent more likely to live longer than those who did not have them.
6. Pets can help lower blood pressure.
Many studies have found a link between pet ownership and lower blood pressure. Merely stroking your pet lowers blood pressure; playing with Whiskers or Fido releases the feel-good hormones oxytocin and dopamine, as does looking your pet in the eye.
7. Pets can help reduce stress.
A survey released by the American Heart Association found that 95 percent of pet owners/parents, count on their pet to help relieve stress. Seventy percent of them reported they’d rather be with their pet than watch TV.
“Chronic or constant stress is a key risk factor of heart disease and stroke, and studies show having a pet can improve mood, reduce stress, and encourage healthy lifestyle habits,” said Glenn Levine, MD, professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, chief of the cardiology section at Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, volunteer medical expert for the American Heart Association’s Healthy Bond for Life, and lead author of the Association’s Scientific Statement on Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk.
More Things to Consider
8. Do your research before acquiring a pet.
Here’s a quiz from chewy.com to help determine which pet might be right for you. Also, tailor a pet to your lifestyle. Yes, border collies are beautiful, but they require a lot of exercise. Do you have time and energy to keep them entertained? Kittens and puppies are cute, but they’ll be into everything. Fish are beautiful, but they take more care than you might think.
9. You don’t have to own a dog or cat to get the benefits of pet ownership.
Maybe your apartment building doesn’t allow pets. Or maybe you just can’t make time to care for a dog or cat. Well, take heart. Guinea pigs are loyal pets; many even squeal when they see their owners, which is likely to release those feel-good hormones.
Fish are good sources of peace and calm, and thus lower blood pressure, too. Maybe that’s why so many dentists have an aquarium in their waiting room.
10. You don’t have to own a pet at all to get health benefits.
They’re living creatures, so they count on your time, your money, and your know-how. If you have none of those, you can still get benefits in several ways.
Volunteer at a local shelter or for a rescue group. Ask a dog-owning friend if you can join the two of them for a walk a few times a week. Go to a dog park. Get an invitation to hang out with a cat owner. Visit the zoo or aquarium periodically.
11. Pet ownership is not for everyone.
If you travel a lot, work long hours away from home, tend to be impatient or have chronic health issues, having a pet probably isn’t the best idea for you. If you have cancer, here are some cautions for pet owners from the American Cancer Society.
12. Pet ownership is not a health fix-all.
If you are experiencing significant physical or mental health issues, having a pet that needs to be walked, fed, and taken to the veterinarian may increase your stress level. So don’t necessarily jump into pet ownership as your first step.
Talk to your doctor or mental health professional for their guidance first. Follow their advice and focus on other important self-care priorities.
Incorporate movement into your day. Eat healthy foods. Get outside. Strive for a good night’s sleep. Then maybe when you’re feeling better, you’ll be more in the mood to share your life with a new friend.
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.