Defining a pet isn’t always easy. Some people keep tarantulas; others chameleons, turtles, fish, or ferrets. For the most part, the pets used for health studies are mammals and companion animals. I’m not saying a tarantula or snake or hedgehog as a pet doesn’t have benefits; they probably do. Those benefits, however, haven’t been studied as expansively as the benefits that dogs and cats show on health…probably because dogs and cats are infinitely more adorable.
Also, when the phrase “pet owner” is used here, it is used loosely. The health benefits people receive from pets aren’t necessarily from “owning” the pet but of spending quality time with a pet. For example, many in-hospital patients (or nursing home patients) receive many of the health benefits of pets without actually being the caretaker of said pet. This means that if you aren’t in a position to take on the care of an animal, you can still receive the multiple health benefits. Volunteering at a shelter, visiting a friend or family member who has pets, or hitting up the local dog park can provide many of the benefits that animals bring to our lives.
Additional Health Benefits of Pets
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower risk of heart attack
- Lower risk of stroke
- Lower levels of bad cholesterol
- Healthier body weight
- Increased flexibility
- Stronger bones
- Stronger immune system
- Pain management
- Lowered anxiety levels
- Less risk of depression
- Body warmth may reduce arthritis pain
Don’t shop: adopt!
Looking for a new pet? Adopt! Shelter animals aren’t broken or damaged or “bad.” Millions (yes, millions) of dogs and cats are put to sleep every year, simply because there are too many animals and not enough homes. If you’re looking to adopt a pet that is young or old, trained or untrained, breed-specific or a breed grab bag, your local shelter can help you find the pet that suits you. In fact, my wonderful, loving, stress-reducing (and sometimes inducing), purebred Sphynx was once a shelter cat. He’s the perfect match for my laid-back, asthmatic, allergen-sensitive lifestyle. You, too, can find your perfect pet through a shelter.
Benefits of Pets
Pets help improve your mood. This is true in a general sense, as they are fluffy and fun, but they also improve your mood in a medical sense. Spending time with your pet, sometimes as little as fifteen minutes, can significantly reduce the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) that your body puts out. Likewise, spending time with your pets increases the serotonin that your body puts out. This effect has been repeatedly documented in multiple studies. Even the CDC has released information supporting the benefits of animal-human bonding. Also, animals are often cute and/or fluffy. Who can deny the happiness of a fluffy kitty?
One health benefit of pets is improved cardiovascular health. There are multiple heart health benefits associated with people and pets. First, pet owners are more likely to engage in physical activities, such as walking or running with their pet (most likely dogs, but I’ve chased a few cats down), which improves their cardiovascular health. Second, pet owners are more likely to have lower blood pressure and lower levels of bad cholesterol. This could be related to the lower stress and anxiety levels reported by pet owners, as well as the exercise that comes from playing with or spending time caring for pets. Those full litter boxes and 40-pound buckets of kitty litter don’t move themselves.
Pet owners tend to be a healthier weight than non-pet owners. If depression, anxiety, stress or loneliness change your eating and exercising patterns, then you aren’t alone. Whether you binge or lose your appetite, whether you’re depressed or sick, a pet can help you to maintain a healthier body weight. Dog owners especially tend to have healthier weights. Pets get us moving when we don’t want to, they can stimulate an appetite if you’re depressed, or they can stave off the sadface munchies. Run around the house with a piece of string or a laser pointer for your cat or take your dog out for a walk in the park. Your scale will thank you.
Benefits of pets include more effective therapy. Therapy involving animals has become overwhelmingly popular. Patients of any age can benefit from therapy involving pets. Dogs and cats are the most popular therapy animals, but other animals, such as horses, are used as well. Whether the patient is being treated for cancer or has autism, animals are often effective counterparts in therapy sessions. Animals can help get rid of depression and anxiety, help patients cope with pain, help patients socialize with other people, build confidence, and lift moods. Outside of therapy sessions, people with mental or physical health issues might consider spending time with a pet or even adopting their own.
Another benefit of pets is that owners are more socially connected. Breeders, rescue organizations, trainers, veterinarians, groomers, neighbors, and even strangers are all connected through pets. Millions of Americans are pet lovers. Simply taking your dog out for a walk in a public place can help you to stay connected to other human beings. This sense of connection to other people can help get rid of depression and anxiety symptoms, alleviate loneliness, and generally make you a happier person. You may meet the love of your life while scooping poo at the dog park or waiting to get your cat’s teeth cleaned. After all, you already know you have something in common.
Disadvantages of pets
It’s not all puppy licks and kitty purrs. Really. There are some disadvantages to having pets in your life, and everyone should be made aware of them. First and foremost, pets are expensive. Yeah. My little terrier got himself a pork chop bone and $350 in vet bills later, he was just fine. Throw in vet check-ups that are nearly as expensive as human ones, vaccinations, identification, bedding, grooming, food, clean water, and surprise medical expenses (like pork chop bones), and pet ownership gets spendy. Also, pets pee, poop, shed (sometimes), bark, meow, claw, scratch, sometimes bite, and sometimes trip people or knock them over. They track germs everywhere, lick their butts (then their fur or you), sometimes vomit, sometimes get parasites, and generally can wreak havoc on anyone whose immune system is compromised. Many animals can worsen allergy symptoms or asthma symptoms. Just this week, a Great Dane knocked into me and split my lip open. If I had fallen, it would have been worse. Pets cause many falls in the home. Yeah. Pets. Love them. Seriously, though, know what you’re getting into. Do your research, and be aware that pets require nearly as much work as children do.