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You're Reading 7 Health Benefits of Pets

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Health

7 Health Benefits of Pets

Check out the surprising science behind how these animals can help our moods, heart health and more.

Whether you’re hanging out with your canine companion or snuggling with your pretty kitty, owning a pet can enrich your life.

So, if you’ve ever been curious about the specific benefits of pet ownership, here is the science behind how animals may improve your health and well-being. And, of course, if you’re considering getting a new pet — whether it’s a dog, cat, fish, bird or something else — make sure you’re equipped to care for it and that pet ownership fits your lifestyle.

You can move more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (like walking or yard work) each week to maintain good health. And owning a dog may be just what you need to get moving. A 2017 study in BMC Public Health found that dog owners spent on average an extra 22 minutes walking each day, at times walking at a 3-miles-per-hour pace. So even if you dread cold morning walks or runs with your furry friend, keep lacing up your sneakers; it’s paying off in more ways than one.

They can help keep your heart healthy. Pet ownership may help you live a heart-healthy lifestyle. In 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a scientific statement (highlighting studies with rigorous approval processes) that found that dog owners may have lower blood pressure and better cholesterol and triglyceride levels than people who don’t own dogs. Dog owners were also 31 percent less likely to die after experiencing a heart attack or stroke, as reported in the journal Circulation in 2019.

They can help you cope. Do you appreciate that gentle nudge from your bunny or chatter from your parakeet? Small displays of affection from pets may also help you to deal with personal setbacks.

For instance, Vanessa Hayes, 51, a medical assistant in Atlanta, dealt with multiple deaths during a three-month period. She credits Rocko, her four-year-old Shih Tzu-Chihuahua mix with helping her cope. “It’s nice to have someone there and to not be alone in the house,” she explains. As a recent empty nester, Hayes says she is grateful for Rocko’s companionship during a stressful and challenging period.

They can contribute to your mental health. A recent study has found a positive link between pet ownership and mental health. For example, 94 percent of Australians with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder had less anxiety after receiving tactile stimulation (like a lick or a nudge) from their psychiatric assistance dog, as reported in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in 2019.

And according to a 2019 study in Clinical Gerontologist, animal lovers over 60 who participated in animal-assisted intervention programs experienced fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and cognitive impairment.

They’re good companions. Caring for your pet can provide a sense of purpose and reduce feelings of loneliness. A 2020 study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry reported that Australian dog owners felt less lonely and isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic because of their pets’ companionship.

Having someone to keep her company is what Chantelle Norman, 48, a salon owner from Atlanta, loves most about her six-year-old Pomeranian dog, Benson. “He’s always around,” Norman explains. “Even if [he’s] just sitting on the floor while I’m on the couch.” And nothing helps to overcome loneliness like a wagging tail or kitten’s purr.

They can help you make friends. Your little sweetheart may help you expand your social circle. For example, pet owners were much more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than people without pets, according to the study PLOS One in 2015. That study also reported that dog owners, in particular, were much more likely than any other kind of pet owner to consider people they met through their pet as a friend.

Pet ownership has also been shown to increase socialization for older adults. Owning a pet later in life allowed people 65-plus the opportunity to rekindle old friendships, form new friendships and strengthen existing relationships according to a 2019 study in Aging & Mental Health.

They can help reduce stress. University students who spent 10 minutes petting cats and dogs had lower cortisol levels (a stress hormone), as reported in the 2019 issue of AERA Open.

Norman also credits her interactions with her dog Benson with helping her feel at ease. “He makes me feel safe,” she says. “He’s small, but he’s always on guard. He alerts us of danger.”

Feeling safe, even subconsciously, can help to create an overall sense of calm and relaxation. And that can be a great feeling these days.

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