• Dana Glackin

There are More Health Benefits to Owning a Pet Than You May Think


How often do you look forward to seeing your pet after a long day at work? Do you find that when you are super stressed or anxious petting your cat or dog helps calm you?

Over 62% of Americans own pets and experience the benefits of living with an animal.¹ Pet owners may experience benefits such as positive mood changes and decreases in stress after being around their pet, but they may not be sure why these changes occur.



Benefits of Pet Ownership

Many pet owners love their pets dearly and consider them to be members of the family. From young children to older adults, pets provide a wide range of benefits for people of all ages. In fact, pet owners experience higher life satisfaction than non pet owners.²


Some of the benefits that pet owners experience include a better mood, decrease in stress, fear, and anxiety, and an increase in interpersonal interactions.³ 


Families, more specifically children, experience specific benefits from having dogs in the house. Children with dogs are less likely to be overweight because they spend time playing with and walking the dog.⁴ In one study, kids aged 7–8 felt that dogs were better at providing comfort than other humans.⁵ Families that had a dog were more likely to take part in leisure activities together.⁶


Most of the benefits pets provide are caused by a sense of companionship, physical health benefits, differences in hormone levels, and the effects of pets on sociability. 


Companionship

Pets are always excited to see their owners and love spending time playing together or getting a good belly rub. They provide their owners with a consistent source of friendship and can tell when they need support and behave accordingly.⁷ Many dogs recognize when their owners are sad and know to comfort them.


In addition, pets accept their owners without judging them.⁸ This total acceptance helps pet owners keep a positive self-identity.⁹ 


Effects of Pets on Sociability

How many times have you been walking down the street and see a very cute dog and ask the owners if you can pet it? This is an example of the effects that pets can have on their owners socialization and social life. 


Pet owners receive more social attention and interactions with others.¹⁰ Owners with a pet that is friendly towards humans and dogs is perceived in a more positive light and receives more attention and smiles.¹¹


Physical Health Benefits

You may be surprised that owning a pet, specifically a dog, can have a positive affect on your physical health. When a dog is present, individuals have lower blood pressure and heart rate.¹² The American Heart Association says that owning a dog may cause a reduction in the risk for cardiovascular disease.¹³ 


For healthy adults, walking their dog causes a significantly higher heart rate variability than walking without their dog, which is associated with being in a relaxed state.¹⁴ To learn more about heart rate variability, you can check out Why You Need to Monitor Heart Rate Variability.


Changes in Hormone Levels

Finally, interacting with animals positively affects the release of hormones in your body. After petting a therapy dog for 20 minutes, individuals experience a remarkable reduction in cortisol levels.¹⁵ Cortisol is considered the “stress” hormone, and lower levels means less stress.


Petting a dog also releases oxytocin, or the “cuddle” hormone, in both the dog and human.¹⁶ Oxytocin is associated with social interaction and is known to increase trust and decrease depression.¹⁷



Mental Health Benefits

You may have heard of people having emotional support pets and wondered how the animal is helping the individual who needs it. Pets provide a distraction and disruption from upsetting symptoms people may experience such as anxiety and excessive worries.¹⁸ As we discussed in previous sections, just petting an animal reduces anxiety and has a calming effect.¹⁹


In patients who experienced a mental disorder, participation in dog therapy led to an increase in communication with other patients and greater sociability.²⁰

Many people who have mental illnesses feel like an outsider or socially outcast due to the harmful stigma surrounding mental health. Pets provide companionship and increase the quality of life for individuals that experience this social exclusion.²¹


For children, interacting with dogs may aid the prevention of mental illnesses.²² Dogs have the ability to stimulate conversation and play an important role in a child’s emotional development.²³ Many children have a hard time expressing their feelings and may be shy, to speaking to or being around a dog may provide an outlet that the child is most comfortable with.


The mental health benefits from animals doesn’t just occur when a physical interaction, such as petting, occurs. One study found that aquariums in waiting rooms reduce anxiety in patients suffering from mental disorders.²⁴ Watching fish swim around an aquarium in a waiting room has a calming effect for most individuals and takes their mind off of their appointment.



Benefits for Older Adults

Last but not least we will discuss the positive effects of pet ownership on older adults. There are many benefits including reduction in depression, lower blood pressure, and better physical health.²⁵ 

Over 60% of older dog owners walked their dog most days, which is typical of those who are physically active.²⁶ Older adults that regularly walked their dogs were more likely to obtain the recommended level of activity per day and spent less time seated.²⁷

Older adults who interact with animals are more likely to be healthy and age successfully, which includes being mentally and physically healthy.²⁸ 


The next time you see your pet and find yourself grinning ear to ear, you will have a better understanding of why you are in such a better mood when you see your dog. If you don’t have a pet, maybe this article will be the push that you needed to go find your furry friend.

Endnotes

  1. Saunders, J., Parast, L., Babey, S. H., & Miles, J. V. (2017). Exploring the differences between pet and non-pet owners: Implications for human-animal interaction research and policy. PloS one, 12(6), e0179494. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0179494

  2. Bao, K. J., & Schreer, G. (2016). Pets and happiness: Examining the association between pet ownership and wellbeing. Anthrozoös, 29(2), 283–296. https://doi-org.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/10.1080/08927936.2016.1152721

  3.  Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: The possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology, 3. https://doi-org.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234

  4. Gadomski, A. M., Scribani, M. B., Krupa, N., Jenkins, P., Nagykaldi, Z., & Olson, A. L. (2015). Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?. Preventing chronic disease, 12, E205. https://doi.org/10.5888/pcd12.150204

  5. Ibid

  6. Beetz et al. 2012

  7. Brooks, H. L., Rushton, K., Lovell, K., Bee, P., Walker, L., Grant, L., & Rogers, A. (2018). The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: A systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry, 18. https://doi-org.ezproxy.middlebury.edu/10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2

  8. Ibid

  9. Ibid

  10. Beetz et al. 2012

  11. Ibid

  12. Ibid

  13. Friedmann, E., Gee, N. R., Simonsick, E. M., Studenski, S., Resnick, B., Barr, E., Kitner-Triolo, M., & Hackney, A. (2020). Pet Ownership Patterns and Successful Aging Outcomes in Community Dwelling Older Adults. Frontiers in veterinary science, 7, 293. https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00293

  14. Beetz et al. 2012

  15. Ibid

  16. Ibid

  17. Ibid

  18. Brooks et al. 2018

  19. Beetz et al. 2012

  20. Ibid

  21. Brooks et al. 2018

  22. Gadomski et al. 2015

  23. Ibid

  24. Beetz et al. 2012

  25. Mueller, M. K., Gee, N. R., & Bures, R. M. (2018). Human-animal interaction as a social determinant of health: descriptive findings from the health and retirement study. BMC public health, 18(1), 305. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-5188-0

  26. Ibid

  27. Friedman et al. 2020

  28. Mueller et al. 2018