Your Pet’s Secret Mission: How Animals Help Us Live Our Healthiest Lives

Studies show that pet owners can reap multiple health benefits from their furry (or scaly, or slimy) friend
Couple dancing with their dog

Pet ownership boomed during the coronavirus pandemic, with lockdowns and social distancing requirements forcing many to seek companionship at home. While the joy of being greeted at the front door by your dog or getting cuddles from your cat is clear, more and more studies are showing that pet ownership also comes with multiple health benefits for owners.

Fido can help keep your physical health in check

Pets requiring daily walks or play time can help get their owners moving on a regular basis. One study even found that dog owners were four times more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity than people who don’t own dogs. Cat owners can also rejoice — another study once found that cat owners had a significantly lower relative risk for death due to a heart attack than those who’d never owned a cat.

But the benefits may not stop with heart health and increased exercise; research has also shown that pet ownership can also help build and maintain healthy habits. According to a UT Southwestern Medical Center study, teenagers who incorporated a pet care routine into their diabetes self-care plan not only significantly improved their monitoring of the disease, but also lowered their blood glucose levels.

Max can force you to interact with others

One key aspect to pet ownership is socialization — and that doesn’t just mean making sure your pet can meet and interact with others of their species. A pet can be a wonderful icebreaker, and whether you’re taking your dog for a walk in the neighborhood or bringing your rabbit to the vet, you’re likely to have an uptick in social interaction with a pet in tow.

In addition, almost three-quarters of older pet owners say their pet gives them a sense of purpose, a benefit that became all the more important during the coronavirus pandemic. A recent study found that older adults overwhelmingly turned to their pets for companionship and support, which in turn could have helped them be more resilient (and less lonely) during lockdown.

Scientists have also found that animal-assisted therapy leads to a reduction in perceived pain, as well as pain-induced insomnia in people with a higher "baseline severity" (like those with chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis). It’s also been shown to help older adults with dementia improve cognitive function, mood status and depressive symptoms.

Cuddles from Sassy can boost your mental health

There’s a reason that therapy pets exist — and it’s not just because they’re adorable. Not only can they provide a level of comfort and emotional support as you get older, but they can actually improve your mental health right now. That’s especially true for those who have depression (rates are lower in those who own pets) or post traumatic stress disorder (research suggests that having a service dog can help decrease PTSD symptoms).

But even if you aren’t currently diagnosed with a mental illness, having a pet can still provide comfort and companionship. In fact, a new study suggests that dogs can smell when people are stressed, with an accuracy of 93.75%. And, according to the National Institutes of Health, simply interacting with animals decreases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. (It’s no wonder that therapy pets are brought into hospitals and nursing homes, where emotions and stress can run high.)

Of course, the type of pet will likely have an impact on which health benefits you could receive, and you have to be willing and able to take on the responsibilities that come with pet ownership — including managing unexpected expenses like emergency vet visits.

In other words: It’s not all wellness and relaxation. But with safeguards in place, your pet can help you live an active, happy lifestyle.

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