Dogs are often described as man’s best friend. Dogs—and cats, too—make wonderful companions and provide many emotional and physical benefits.
“I’m a believer in the beneficial effects of having a pet, and I’m impressed with the ability of dogs in particular to bond with human beings. I think the science is starting to support their special ability to do that,” says psychiatrist Greg Fricchione, MD, director of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.
For many of us, our pets are part of the family. We include them in family portraits, bring them on vacation, and invest in their health, but they can help keep us healthy, too! Here are a few of the benefits of owning pets.
Improved cardiovascular health
There are several well-designed studies that show owning pets can improve our cardiovascular health. One study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) followed 421 adults who suffered heart attacks. One year later, dog owners were significantly more likely to be alive when compared with those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
Another study looked at 240 married couples. Those who owned a pet were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure than those without pets, whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests. Owning a cat rather than a dog was significantly associated with a reduced hazard of dying from CVD events, in particular, stroke. The protection pets confer may not be from physical activities, but possibly due to personality of the pet owners or stress-relieving effects of animal companionship.
Studies have also found that dog owners may get more exercise than people who do not own dogs. An NIH study found that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog.
A recent study published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Gerontological Society of America found that the relationship with one’s dog may be a positive influence on physical activity for older adults as well. Dog walking was associated with lower body mass indices, fewer activities of daily living limitations, fewer doctor visits, and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise for the human companions.
Several studies have indicated that pet ownership can reduce stress. Playing with or petting an animal can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol. A recent study in the journal Science reported how oxytocin is boosted in both the dog and the human when a dog owner stares into eyes of the dog. Oxytocin is one of the body’s “feel good” chemicals and also plays a role in social bonding.
We feel especially secure with dogs and cats because of the unconditional love they provide. Caring for a dog or a cat can provide a sense of purpose and a feeling of validation when you wake up or come home and there’s someone who is happy to see you.
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
In one study, participants with ASD demonstrated more social approach behaviors (including talking, looking at faces, and making tactile contact) and received more social approaches from their peers in the presence of animals compared with toys. These results suggest that the presence of an animal can significantly increase positive social behaviors among children with ASD.
Improved social life
A study funded by Pedigree found that being a pet owner was the third-most common way that survey respondents met new people in their neighborhoods (the first was by being neighbors and the second was by using local streets and parks). Pets can be good ice-breakers, making it easy for humans to start conversations. Even “stay at home” pets can be great ice-breakers, because who doesn’t like looking at animal pictures or cuddling up with a fluff-ball for an in-home doggy playdate?
So is pet ownership right for you? Before rushing out to buy a dog or cat, make sure that your lifestyle allows you to care for a pet. Thousands of pets are euthanized every year because shelters simply don’t have space for abandoned pets. Deciding to adopt a pet should not be a spur of the moment decision, so think it through.
If you decide to get a pet, consider rescuing your newest family member by searching available pets at the Animal Humane Society or The Shelter Pet Project www.theshelterpetproject.org