04/08/2016 Mind-Body Health
Pets are more than just furry companions; they can provide their owners with numerous benefits, including improved emotional and physical health.
There are few things better than coming home from a stressful day at work to an excited dog or cat that is able to provide you with the comfort and support you so desperately seek. Whether you’re at your best or feeling your absolute worst, pets always remain right by your side.
More than just a furry, loyal companion, pets are often considered to be another member of the family. According to the American Psychological Association, pet owners are just as close to their pets as they are to the most important people in their lives. (No doubt that most pet owners can vouch for that).
In addition to companionship, pets can provide owners with numerous other health benefits, both psychological and physical. The following are some of the benefits of owning a pet.
1. Relieves Stress
Animals, particularly dogs, are often used to help individuals manage high stress levels. Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stressed out medical students, and anxious children are just a few groups that experience less stress in the presence of a pet.
In 2012, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University examined stress levels of employees who brought their dogs to work, employees who left their dogs at home, and employees who didn’t own a pet. They found that dog owners whose dogs were present at work reported less stress over the course of the workday while those with a dog at home or no dog at all reported an increase in stress. Furthermore, employees reported a significant increase in stress on days they left their dog at home compared to when they brought their pet to work.
2. Encourages Physical Activity and Being Outdoors
Whether it’s running, throwing a Frisbee, or simply walking, dogs encourage owners to get outside and move. According to a 2013 official statement from the American Heart Association, dogs help their owners stay active, referencing a study that found dog owners to be 54 percent more likely than other adults to get the recommended amount of exercise.
Physical activity paired with being outdoors carries numerous other health benefits. Surrounding oneself with nature has been shown to improve mental health and reduce stress. Furthermore, spending time outdoors can raise vitamin D levels, an essential vitamin for combating depression and facilitating a healthy immune system.
3. Boosts Heart Health
Pets can also boost owner’s heart health, perhaps as a result of the increased physical activity that they promote. According to the American Heart Association, dog ownership in particular may reduce cardiovascular risk, likely as a result of owners walking their pets more often than non-dog owners. Owning pets may also be associated with a lower risk of obesity, lower blood pressure, less stress, and lower cholesterol levels—all of which can have a positive impact on the heart.
Research also indicates that simply interacting with a dog can provide heart benefits. In a 2007 study performed out of UCLA, researchers provided therapy dogs for patients hospitalized with heart failure. They found that after a 12-minute visit, patients exhibited improved cardiopulmonary pressures, healthier neurohormone levels, and less anxiety.
4. Fights Allergies
Interestingly, pets can serve as a barrier against allergies. Researchers suspect growing up with pets strengthens the immune system and helps children build immunity against pet allergens and bacteria.
According to a 2011 study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy, children who grow up with a cat or dog in the home are less likely to be allergic to them later in life, but only if the pet was present when they were infants. Those who grew up with cats were half as likely to develop allergies toward them as teenagers compared to those who grew up in cat-free homes. Researchers found similar results for dogs and boys but surprisingly, not girls. (One explanation may be that girls interact differently with pets as babies than boys do, leading to less immunity). Pet exposure after a child’s first year did not show an effect, suggesting that early exposure may be key to reducing allergy risk.
5. Promotes Social Interaction
Social connections are essential to our long-term health. Often times, people have a difficult time creating and maintaining relationships. Fortunately, pets serve as a great facilitator for making new connections and building social support, both of which are vital to our health.
A 2015 study published in the journal, PLoS One found that pet owners were more likely than non-pet owners to meet neighbors they had never met before, supporting previous research that suggests pets serve as ‘ice-breakers.’ Dog owners were most likely to form new friendships, particularly while walking their dogs, but the study suggests other pets, such as cats, rabbits, and snakes, can foster connections as well.
Dogs have also proven to be particularly helpful in aiding autistic children with forming bonds with their peers. A 2014 study conducted at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that owning a dog helped bridge the gap for children with autism, who may find it difficult to communicate with others. Serving as a social buffer, dogs allot children the opportunity to communicate more clearly and confidently. While dogs were the subjects of the study, researchers suggest other pets, such as rabbits or cats, may be better suited for some children—depending on child’s preference and condition.
6. Improves Emotional Health
Emotionally healthy people are resilient, self-confident, and capable of developing strong, healthy relationships. Interestingly, a 2011 study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that pet owners shared many of these same characteristics. Compared to non-pet owners, researchers found pet owners to have higher self-esteem, be more extraverted and less lonely, be less preoccupied, and be less fearful of everyday life challenges. Pets also appeared to help owners feel better after an incident where they reported feeling rejected.
A separate study examined the effects of pet therapy on mood and perceived quality of life in elderly patients with dementia, depression, or psychosis. Patients who were administered pet therapy over a six-week period reported a decrease in depressive symptoms, improved perception of quality of life, and better cognitive functioning.
7. Keeps Us Present
Pets serve as constant reminders to live in the moment because it is the only way they know how to live. While us humans ruminate over the past and worry about the future, pets simply live in the here and now. Their focus is on whatever is directly in front of them. Pets appear to be simple creatures but in many ways, they are much wiser than their owners. Next time you’re on a walk with your dog or sitting quietly with your cat, remember to stop, look around, and take in the beauty of the moment.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.