The Surprising (and Multiple) Health Benefits of Owning a Pet
Humans have shared a unique bond with animals since ancient times. Some 12,000 years ago, dogs were first domesticated from wolves as the result of a mutual partnership. The wolves benefited from mans’ use of weapons and skills during a hunt, while humans valued the wolves’ speed and ferocity.
From there, it’s likely humans took in and raised a lone wolf pup, which would have adapted easily to human society.
Likewise, cats were valued in ancient times for their skillful pest control, and even revered in some countries as sacred. The cats, in turn, benefited from food, shelter and playtime from their human companions.
Today, humans’ love affair with animals continues, as do their mutually beneficial relationships. In fact, some 39 percent of U.S. households own at least one dog, while 33 percent own at least one cat, lending further credence to the strong human-animal bond.
Of course, most pet owners experience the love and companionship their pets offer on a daily basis, and it’s this unconditional love that makes your dog’s tendency to turn your favorite slippers into chew toys or your cat’s habit of meowing up a storm at 3 a.m. all worthwhile.
However, the benefits of pet ownership extend far beyond having a loyal friend to curl up at your feet. As even ancient humans may have sensed, and new research is continuing to reveal, owning a pet can be wonderful for your health.
How Owning a Pet Can Improve Your Health
Numerous studies have shown that owning a pet can lower your blood pressure, relieve feelings of depression, loneliness, stress and anxiety, and even boost your self-esteem.
Further, according to the Delta Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing human health and well-being through positive interactions with animals, research has shown that:
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than non-owners
- Displaying tanks of brightly colored fish improves eating habits and curtails disruptive behavior in people with Alzheimer’s disease
- Pet owners have better psychological well-being overall, and feel less afraid of being a victim to a crime in their home
- Children exposed to pets during their first year of life have a lower risk of developing asthma and allergies
- Pet ownership may decrease heart attack mortality by 3 percent
- Owning a pet (particularly a dog) helps children adjust better to serious illness or death of a parent, as well as enhances self-esteem, cognitive development and nurturing behavior
And this is by no means an exhaustive list.
Other research has shown that heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without. And a survey of more than 11,000 people found that pet owners made 15 percent to 20 percent fewer visits to the doctor each year than non-pet owners. And the list goes on and on..
Pets Provide Amazing Stress Relief
Perhaps most astonishing of all is pets’ remarkable ability to ease feelings of stress. Chronic stress can increase your risk of a number of health problems, ranging from heart disease to cancer, and it’s through this mechanism that pets may offer such wide-ranging benefits to your health.
In fact, simply petting your dog or cat can raise your levels of serotonin and dopamine, two “feel-good” chemicals in your brain.
This may help explain why a study by Karen Allen, PhD, a medical researcher at the University of Buffalo, found that stockbrokers who owned a pet had lower blood pressure readings during stressful situations than those who did not.
A separate study by Allen even revealed that people had a lower stress response when they performed a challenging task with their pets present than they did with their best friend or spouse!
It’s because of pets’ unique ability to calm and soothe that they’re also becoming regulars in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and rehab centers across the United States as part of animal-assisted therapy programs.
Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) Programs on the Rise
According to the Delta Society, “AAT is a goal-directed intervention directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession. AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.”
In other words, certified therapy animals working with specialized handlers interact with adults and children, providing a wide range of emotional and physical benefits.
Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in Zion, IL, for instance, launched an AAT program in January 2008 to help ease anxiety, pain, discomfort and stress among cancer patients and their loved ones.
Patients taking part in the animal-assisted therapy program get visits from Tori, a 1-year-old Australian labradoodle and certified therapy dog, who provides comfort, relief and distraction from pain -- and even performs tricks to give patients a laugh.
“When she walks in, you can just see people relax,” said Cynthia Ingram, AAT coordinator at CTCA.
Animal-assisted therapy has also been found to help reduce loneliness in residents of long-term care facilities and, beyond the emotional benefits, the Delta Society points out that visits with a therapy dog have been found to help heart and lung function by lowering pressures, diminishing release of harmful hormones and decreasing anxiety in people hospitalized with heart failure.
Also, research recently presented at the First Human Animal Interaction Conference in Kansas City, Missouri found that people who used AAT while recovering from total joint-replacement surgery required 50 percent less pain medication.
Further goals of AAT programs are wide-reaching and include:
- Improving fine motor, wheelchair and balance skills
- Increasing verbal interactions, attention skills, vocabulary and memory
- Increasing self-esteem and exercise
Perhaps most notably, AAT gives people and children facing physical and emotional challenges a break from their problems and a chance to experience a few moments of unconditional acceptance and love.
Is Owning a Pet Right for You?
“While the benefits of pet ownership are numerous, owning a pet is not for everyone. Caring for an animal requires a commitment of your time and money, and is a decision that should be made with all members of your family present.
That said, if you decide to add a pet to your home, keep in mind that dogs and cats (while the most popular) are not your only options. Studies have shown health benefits from many types of human-animal interactions, including those with fish, horses and even dolphins.
One common denominator, though, is that people tend to get the greatest benefits, both physically and emotionally, from an animal they feel a personal attachment to. So if you’re interested in experiencing all the great attributes that animals have to offer, getting a pet of your own may be just what the doctor ordered.
*Photo provided by Cancer Fighters Thrive™ magazine and Bart Harris Photography, Inc