Pets Are Good for Your Health, and We Have the Studies to Prove It

Pets strengthen our hearts, calm our nerves and a whole lot more. Kotkot32/Shutterstock

If you have pets you already know the joy and love they bring to your life. Now science is confirming just how good they really are for you — both mentally and physically.

How do they help? One theory is that pets boost our oxytocin levels. Also known as the "bonding hormone" or "cuddle chemical," oxytocin enhances social skills, decreases blood pressure and heart rate, boosts immune function and raises tolerance for pain. It also lowers stress, anger, and depression.

No surprise then that keeping regular company with a dog or cat (or another beloved beast) appears to offer all these same benefits and more. Read on to discover the many impressive ways a pet can make you healthier, happier and more resilient.

1. Pets help you live longer, healthier lives

Having a dog is associated with a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease or other causes, according to a study that followed 3.4 million people in Sweden. Researchers studied men and women between the ages of 40 and 80 and followed their health records (and whether they owned a dog) for about a dozen years. The study found that for people who lived alone, owning a dog can provide a form of social support and increase physical activity, which can decrease their risk of death by 33% and their risk of cardiovascular-related death by 36%, compared to single people without a pet. Chances of having a heart attack were also 11% lower. A 2019 review of nearly 70 years of research found that dog ownership lowers your risk of dying from any cause by 24%. For people who've already suffered an acute coronary event, their risk drops 65% when they have a dog. The results were published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association.

2. Pets alleviate allergies and boost immune function

One of your immune system's jobs is to identify potentially harmful substances and unleash antibodies to ward off the threat. But sometimes it overreacts and misidentifies harmless stuff as dangerous, causing an allergic reaction. Think red eyes, itchy skin, runny nose and wheezing.

You'd think that having pets might trigger allergies by kicking up sneeze-and-wheeze-inducing dander and fur. But it turns out that living with a dog or cat during the first year of life not only cuts your chances of having pet allergies in childhood and later on but also lowers your risk of asthma. A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that newborns who live with cats have a lower risk of childhood asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis.

Living with a pet as a child also revs up your immune system. In fact, just a brief pet encounter can invigorate your disease-defense system. In one study, petting a dog for only 18 minutes significantly raised secretory immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels in college students' saliva, a sign of robust immune function.

There's even some new research that suggests links between the microbes found in animals and the beneficial ones that live in our digestive tract. “Exposure to animal bacteria may trigger bacteria in our gut to change how they metabolize the neurotransmitters that have an impact on mood and other mental functions,” Jack Gilbert, the director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago, told The New York Times. Gilbert is co-author of a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine that found Amish children have lower rates of asthma because they grow up with livestock and the bacteria they host. Gilbert cautions that studies about how pet microbes might affect human gut bacteria is still in early stages.

3. Pets up your fitness quotient

This one applies more to dog owners. If you like walking with your favorite canine, chances are you're fitter and trimmer than your non-dog-walking counterparts and come closer to meeting recommended physical activity levels. One National Institutes of Health-funded study of more than 2,000 adults found that regular dog walkers got more exercise and were less likely to be obese than those who didn't walk a dog. In another study, older dog walkers (ages 71-82) walked faster and longer than non-pooch-walkers, plus they were more mobile at home.

A small dog runs alongside its human companion
Dog owners who take their canine companions on walks tend to be trimmer and fitter than their fellow dog-less peers. AMatveev/Shutterstock

4. Pets dial down stress

When stress comes your way, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, releasing hormones like cortisol to crank out more energy-boosting blood sugar and epinephrine to get your heart and blood pumping. All well and good for our ancestors who needed quick bursts of speed to dodge predatory saber-toothed tigers and stampeding mastodons. But when we live in a constant state of fight-or-flight from ongoing stress at work and the frenetic pace of modern life, these physical changes take their toll on our bodies, including raising our risk of heart disease and other dangerous conditions. Contact with pets seems to counteract this stress response by lowering stress hormones and heart rate. They also lower anxiety and fear levels (psychological responses to stress) and elevate feelings of calmness. Studies have found that dogs can help ease stress and loneliness for seniors, as well as help calm pre-exam stress for college students. One study found that just 10 minutes of petting a dog or cat can lower cortisol levels in college students.

5. Pets boost heart health

Pets shower us with love, so it's not surprising they have a big impact on our love organ: the heart. Turns out time spent with a cherished critter is linked to better cardiovascular health, possibly due to the stress-busting effect mentioned above. Studies show that dog owners have a lower risk of heart disease, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol. There's also evidence that suggests dog owners have a lowered risk of death after being hospitalized due to a major cardiovascular event. And don't worry, cat owners — feline affection confers a similar effect. One 2009 study found that former cat owners were about 40% less likely to suffer a heart attack. Another study that followed more than 1,700 people in the Czech Republic found that dog owners are more likely to have better overall heart health. Pet owners in the study reported more physical activity, better diet and ideal blood sugar levels, but dog owners showed the greatest benefits from having a pet.

6. Make you a social — and date — magnet

Four-legged companions (particularly the canine variety that pull us out of the house for daily walks) help us make more friends and appear more approachable, trustworthy and date-worthy. In one study, people in wheelchairs who had a dog received more smiles and had more conversations with passersby than those without a dog. In another study, college students who were asked to watch videos of two psychotherapists (depicted once with a dog and once without) said they felt more positively toward them when they had a dog and more likely to disclose personal information. And good news for guys: research shows that women are more willing to give out their number to men with a canine buddy.

A woman and a man in a park with a labrador
A dog can make you appear friendlier and more approachable to others. CandyBox Images/Shutterstock

7. Provide a social salve for Alzheimer's patients

Just as non-human pals strengthen our social skills and connection, cats and dogs also offer furry, friendly comfort and social bonding to people suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of brain-destroying dementia. Several canine caregiver programs now exist to assist at-home dementia patients with day-to-day tasks, such as fetching medication, reminding them to eat and guiding them home if they've wandered off course. Many assisted-living facilities also keep resident pets or offer therapy animal visits to support and stimulate patients. Studies show creature companions can reduce behavioral issues among dementia patients by boosting their moods and raising their nutritional intake.

8. Enhance social skills in kids with autism

A 2016 study conducted across 11 surveillance sites in the U.S. found 1 in 54 children aged 8 years old had autism (also known as autism spectrum disorder, or ASD), a developmental disability that makes it tough to communicate and interact socially. Not surprisingly, animals can also help these kids connect better to others. One study found that youngsters with ASD talked and laughed more, whined and cried less, and were more social with peers when in the presence of guinea pigs compared to toys. A multitude of ASD animal-assisted therapy programs have sprung up in recent years, featuring everything from dogs and dolphins to alpacas, horses, and even chickens.

An boy with autism cuddles with a therapy dog
Animal-assisted therapy helps kids with autism and other developmental disabilities learn social skills. GoodDog Autism [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

9. Dampen depression and boost mood

Pets keep loneliness and isolation at bay and make us smile. In other words, their creature camaraderie and ability to keep us engaged in daily life (via endearing demands for food, attention, and walks) are good recipes for warding off the blues and defeating loneliness. A study by Australian researchers found that getting a dog can lessen feelings of loneliness. It could be because cuddling with a dog boosts your mood in the short term, but also because having a dog makes you more likely to meet people.

Research is ongoing, but animal-assisted therapy is proving particularly potent in deterring depression and other mood disorders. Some studies show that everyone from older men in a veterans hospital who were exposed to an aviary filled with songbirds to depressed college students who spent time with dogs reported feeling more positive.

10. Manage PTSD

People haunted by traumatic events like combat, assault, and natural disasters are particularly vulnerable to a mental health condition called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sure enough, studies show that the unconditional love — and oxytocin boost — of a pet can help remedy the flashbacks, emotional numbness, and angry outbursts linked to PTSD. Even better, there are now several programs that pair specially trained service dogs and cats with veterans suffering from PTSD.

11. Fight cancer

Animal-assisted therapy helps cancer patients heal emotionally and physically. Preliminary findings of a clinical trial by the American Humane Association shows that therapy dogs not only erase loneliness, depression and stress in kids fighting cancer, but canines can also motivate them to eat and follow treatment recommendations better — in other words participate more actively in their own healing. Likewise, new research reveals a similar lift in emotional well-being for adults undergoing the physical rigors of cancer treatment. Even more astounding, dogs (with their stellar smelling skills) are now being trained to literally sniff out cancer.

12. Put the kibosh on pain

Millions live with chronic pain, but animals can soothe some of it away. In one study, 34% of patients with the pain disorder fibromyalgia reported pain relief (and a better mood and less fatigue) after visiting for 10-15 minutes with a therapy dog compared to only 4% of patients who just sat in a waiting room. In another study, those who had undergone total joint replacement surgery needed 28% less pain medication after daily visits from a therapy dog than those who got no canine contact.

13. Lessen schizophrenia risk

Being around a dog at an early age may lessen the chance of developing schizophrenia as an adult, according to new research from Johns Hopkins University. In the study, researchers looked at the relationship between exposure to a family dog or cat during the first 12 years of life and a later diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. They found that being around a dog lowered the risk of developing schizophrenia but had no impact on bipolar disorder. They saw no immediate relationship between cats and either disorder. The researchers caution that more studies need to be done to confirm their findings.

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