Everyone who’s lucky enough to have a pet knows how much better their lives are with their furry (or feathery, or even scaly) friend. Pets give us companionship, comfort, and quite a bit of amusement (as proven by millions of funny cat videos on the internet). But did you know that they can be good for your health as well? Studies have shown that having a dog or a cat (or a bird, or a guinea pig, or a fish…) can be beneficial to your physical and mental well being. Here are six ways a pet can help make you happier and healthier.
1. You’ll be less stressed
Science has demonstrated on numerous occasions that spending time with our furry friends can make us calmer and happier. Studies of high stress groups, such as veterans suffering from PTSD, students in medical school, and children with anxiety issues, have all shown that the subjects’ stress levels decreased when they were with their pets. One study found that if a child has trouble reading, having them read out loud to a dog makes them able to relax and read better. Another found that autistic children who had a guinea pig in their classroom were less anxious and were better able to function socially. However, you don’t have to be in one of these high stress groups to see an improvement in your mental health around pets. Playing with your pet can naturally raise the levels of serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals your brain produces that contribute to happiness.
2. Your heart will be healthier
Stress and depression are terrible on their own, of course, but they’re also risk factors for cardiac issues. Owning a pet can have an effect on a number of heart health factors. People with pets tend to have lower blood pressure, lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, and less cortisol. Even just petting a dog has been show to lower heart rate and blood pressure at that moment. One study of stockbrokers with high blood pressure saw that those with a dog or cat had lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those who did not. Heart attack patients also tend to live longer if they have pets. Of course, having a pet also benefits your heart because…
3. You’ll get more exercise
This is especially true for people with dogs. A recent study showed that people with dogs were 54% more likely to get the recommended amount of exercise. Taking your dog for a walk two or three times a day can add some significant exercise to your life. Most dogs also benefit from opportunities to play and run around, and there are few things more enjoyable than playing fetch with an eager pooch. Taking your pup out to walk or play also gets you into the great outdoors, and science has shown that fresh air and sunshine are great for mental health and even a strong immune system.
4. You’ll meet more people
There’s a reason why so many romantic movies feature meet-cutes that involve dogs. Walking a dog is a great way to meet your neighbors, other dog owners, and even random passersby. Many people will ask about the dog’s name, age, and breed, which is a great way to start a conversation. Also, remember how dogs tend to make people less anxious? This applies to social anxiety as well! If you tend to clam up when interacting with other people, having a dog there may make it easier for you to engage. And while dogs are the pets you’re most likely to have with you in social situations, any pet (be it dog, cat, ferret, or snake) is a great subject for small talk.
5. Your kids will have fewer allergies
This might seem counter-intuitive, but having a pet can actually make your kids healthier. Sadly, it’s all to common for people to get rid of their cats or dogs when there’s a baby on the way, thinking that having animals around the baby will make them sick. Studies, however, seem to suggest the opposite. Not only do kids in households with pets have a lower rate of pet allergies than those in pet-free situations, but they are also less likely to develop asthma and eczema, and have stronger immune systems overall. Pets also help kids develop empathy (particularly when a child has no siblings) and a sense of responsibility. So if you’re about to have a baby and you already have a pet, keep them! And if you don’t have one yet, maybe think about getting one!
6. A pet will keep you healthier as you get older
Pets can have a profoundly positive impact on the lives of the elderly. Studies have shown that Alzheimer patients with an animal in the home have fewer anxiety attacks than those without. Interestingly, the elderly benefit from having a pet even if that pet isn’t soft and cuddly. One study of seniors in a nursing home showed that having a tank of colorful tropical fish in the dining room led to an improvement of the seniors’ eating and nutrition, as well as making them less lethargic and anxious. Another study gave elderly subjects a cage of five crickets, and found that after eight weeks they were less depressed than those who were not given these pets. What this study in particular tells us is that pets give us the opportunity to care for and nurture a living thing, fulfilling a basic human need and helping to ward off loneliness.
Having a pet can enrich your life in many ways. Not only can you find comfort, companionship, and amusement in a furry friend, but you also might actually be happier and healthier as a result. If you’re inspired to go out and get a pet of your own, consider adopting an animal from a shelter. You might be rescuing them, but in many ways they just might rescue you.