The health benefits of pet ownership
Owning a pet isn’t for everyone, but according to several studies, those who do, are usually happier, healthier and better adjusted than those who don’t. There’s plenty of research that shows that dogs in particular can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise, and improve our overall health and wellbeing.
The responsibility of caring for a dog gives us a sense of purpose and makes us feel needed. It also boosts physical fitness and increases social interaction by forcing us to get off the couch and go for a walk every now and then, and perhaps most importantly, a dog can improve mood by bringing real joy and unconditional love into our life.
The act of stroking a pet and talking to it can increase emotional wellbeing, particularly if we’re feeling stressed, sad or lonely. When faced with stress, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode, releasing hormones like cortisol to produce more energy-boosting blood sugar and epinephrine to get our heart and blood pumping. All well and good for our ancestors who needed quick bursts of speed to dodge predatory sabre-toothed tigers! But not so good if we’re living in a constant state of fight-or-flight mode in order to cope with the many everyday stresses of modern life, because high levels of cortisol over a prolonged period of time can wreak havoc on our bodies and cause several unwanted symptoms.
However, according to research, when we interact with our pet, our brain increases its production of the mood enhancing hormones dopamine (responsible for happiness) and oxytocin (responsible for bonding), and cortisol levels decrease; helping us to counteract the stress response and feel peaceful and relaxed. When questioned, pet owners say that the emotional support they receive from their pets is just as important as that from family members, which is why people living in mental health units, special schools, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities are now routinely offered regular access to therapy dogs.
Another way in which pet ownership helps people with mental health problems, is by providing structure and routine to the day. All animals need feeding regularly, and dogs require daily exercise, so no matter what our mood, we have to get out of bed to feed, exercise, and take care of them. Going for daily walks and maintaining eating routines can be draining at times, but it benefits us as much as it does them, because we tend to feel happier and be more productive when we have order and structure to our day. Caring for a living animal also helps us feel needed, and stops us dwelling too much on our problems. More information can be found here and here.
Pets can also help prevent loneliness. When questioned, half of owners considered their pets to be their companions. Most talk to their pets, and some even use them to work through their troubles. And why not? Pets are loyal, non-judgmental and full of unconditional love, and provide a constant source of healthy social stimulation that can sometimes be hard to find elsewhere.
Their companionship can help prevent the isolation and loneliness that trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety, and not only can they be an integral member of our social network, but pets can help extend that network as well. Studies have revealed that dog owners have more positive social interactions, and that the presence of canine friends makes people more trusting...and also more deserving of trust. Staying connected and maintaining a social networks isn’t always easy; relocation, illness, unemployment and retirement, can all take away close friends and family members, and making new friends can get harder if our confidence has taken a knock. So pets are a great way for us to spark up conversations and meet new people. I’ve noticed that when I’m out with my dog, strangers are more likely to smile at me, say hello, and stop for a chat. Although these brief exchanges may seem trivial, they actually leave us feeling less isolated and more in sync with our community, and that makes us happier because we feel more secure when we’re connected to others.
The companionship of a pet can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world. Because animals live in the moment, they don't worry about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow, they can help us become more mindful and appreciate the joy of the present.
Studies show that pet ownership improves physical health too. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death worldwide, representing 31% of all global deaths. Of these deaths, 85% are due to heart attack and stroke. Several studies, including a report by the American Heart Association, have concluded that dogs are beneficial in reducing cardiovascular risk by providing a non-human form of social support and by increasing physical activity, resulting in a reduction in CVD risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and obesity. Recent research by Uppsala University in Sweden, which tracked over three million people for 12 years, confirmed that dog ownership is associated with a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease and death. More information can be found here and here.
Dogs may also help us cope with chronic pain. 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. See here for more information.
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 had no canine contact. See here for more information.
For those of us with children, there is evidence to suggest that growing up with a pet in the home can alleviate allergies and boost immune function. You would think that having pets might trigger allergies, but it turns out that living with a dog or cat during the first year of life not only cuts a child’s chances of having pet allergies in childhood and later on, but also lowers their risk of developing asthma, pneumonia and bronchiolitis. See here for more information.
There are clearly a lot of health benefits to owning a pet, but sharing our home with a dog, cat or hamster is only going to be successful if we’re going to love and appreciate it, and if we have the time and money to keep it happy and healthy. Owning a dog is a major commitment, and if you’re simply not a ‘dog person’, dog ownership is not going to provide you with any health benefits or improve your life. Even if you love dogs, it’s important to understand everything that caring for a dog entails. It’s a commitment that will last the lifetime of the animal, perhaps 10 or 15 years. Not only do they demand regular meals, fresh water, and daily walks, but they have to be cleaned up after constantly too, and sometimes they can be destructive…..especially when puppies, or if left alone for too long.
So, although a pet can be a powerful form of stress relief for many people, certain individuals might do best to stick with the stuffed variety. For these people, taking on the added responsibilities of a pet may prove too much for them to handle, and simply exacerbate their anxiety. It's important to always assess one's personal situation before rushing off to the animal shelter/re-homing centre, because unfortunately, pets and stress relief don't always go hand in hand.