It’s not just our imaginations. Animals make us feel good. Just watching them (kitten videos, anyone?) or being in their presence can have a calming effect and put us in a good mood. They can also help us stay mentally and physically fit.
Here are 10 important ways pets (be they furred, finned or feathered) can contribute to good health:
- Pets keep us active. As many of our members can attest, dogs make excellent walking buddies. (How many times have you felt like skipping your morning walk, but your dog needed one, so you did it anyway?) Walking your dog counts as a weight-bearing exercise that strengthens your bones and muscles. It also gets you outside in the sun, which provides much-needed vitamin D. A recent study published in Scientific Reports found that dog owners are about four times more likely than other people to meet today’s physical activity guidelines. Most dog owners walked about 300 minutes each week, which was 200 more minutes of walking than people without dogs.
- They help support a healthy heart. Some research suggests that having a dog or cat may reduce your risk of heart disease, possibly because pet ownership is associated with reduced blood pressure, reduced heart rate and even healthier cholesterol levels. The reason isn’t fully clear. Part of it could be the more active lifestyle that often comes with having pets. One study even found that being in the same room as a pet was more effective at reducing blood pressure during stress than a commonly used blood pressure medication. In a 20-year study, people who never owned a cat were 40% more likely to die of a heart attack than cat owners. Another study found that dog owners had a better survival rate one year following a heart attack. Overall, pet owners are less likely to die of any cardiac disease, including heart failure.
- Pets help us chill out. Research suggests that having a pet can help you cope better with life’s ups and downs. Petting a dog has even been associated with reduced levels of stress hormones–namely cortisol–and increased levels of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that increases a sense of bonding with others.
- Pets are good company. Having a pet can help us feel less alone. This is significant because loneliness has been linked to poorer physical and mental health outcomes. Reduced feelings of loneliness can translate to better mood (i.e., lower levels of anxiety and depression) and greater feelings of satisfaction. There’s even some evidence to suggest that people who care for a pet take better care of their own health.
- They help us make new friends. Staying engaged with others keeps our minds sharp and pets tend to be good conversation fodder. For example, dog owners will often stop to chat with one another while walking in their neighborhood or local park.
- They’re there when we need them. Even if you have a strong social support network of friends and family, pets provide a special breed of companionship that we can’t always get from other humans. Our relationships with our pets are usually far less complicated and less stressful than our relationships with people. Pets are also non-judgmental and a consistent source of unconditional love.
- They give us a sense of purpose and responsibility. This can be especially true for older adults who are no longer working or caring for family at home. Taking care of a pet can help provide meaning that may be otherwise missing in our lives.
- Pets can boost our self-esteem. Some research suggests that pet owners have higher levels of self-esteem than their non-pet-owning counterparts. (See #4-7.)
- They remind us to stretch. Ever noticed how often dogs and cats stretch their limbs? It’s a good reminder to stand up and stretch our own bodies. Try following in their footsteps with a few upward and downward dogs and cat-cow stretches every hour or two.
- They alert us to potential health problems. Dogs can be trained to “sniff out” cancer and detect blood sugar changes in diabetics. It’s thought that dogs can sense chemical changes in the body that give off a distinct scent.
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