Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Pets are more than companions — they provide myriad physical and emotional health benefits, while bringing love, joy…and yes, responsibilities.
Humans and dogs have been interacting with one another for over 30,000 years. We have hunted together and slept together, sharing both meals and heartbreak. Humans’ relationship with cats began some 9,500 years ago (…and they’ve been treating us with disdain ever since!).
For decades, scientists have been exploring the relationships between humans and their pets, hoping to establish a concrete reason for the sense of joy and wellbeing we get from our furry companions.
Although chatting to your cockatoo or stroking your bunny’s ears may not seem like a life-enhancing event, studies indicate that it has significant benefits for both your mental and physical wellbeing.
Any variety of companion animal, be it a talkative parrot or a silent bunny, has a positive impact on our physical and mental well-being, but none can compete with dogs for the feel-good factor (in my humble opinion).
I love my dogs. When I get home and see the excited faces and wagging tails of my little pack of canine misfits, I can’t stop smiling, and nor do I want to. But why does having a pet make your life healthier as well as happier?
The Science Behind the Smile
Pets and companion animals have a positive impact on our psyche, while impacts practically everything else in the body, like brain chemistry, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels (just to name a few).
The feel-good factor starts with the so-called ‘love hormone’ oxytocin. When our brains release oxytocin, we experience a profusion of psychological changes accompanied by positive feelings. Our heart rates and breathing slow down, we feel a sense of calmness and comfort.
Every time we interact with an animal, be it via word, a touch, or just a gaze, we release oxytocin. This chemical is central to our ability to build relationships and feel empathy for others. It’s so powerful it can even reduce stereotyped behaviors and improve sociality in high-functioning autistics.
It’s not just oxytocin that pets stimulate either — playing with our pets or just hanging out with them can boost levels of both dopamine and serotonin — the main chemicals address by most common antidepressants.
Stroking an animal or playing with a dog could be more effective than taking a potent antidepressant. Studies show people with pets are less likely to suffer from depression and are generally happier than people without pets.
Our animal companions also have a positive effect on our social life and interactions. One study, published in BMC Psychiatry, revealed that participants felt their pets helped them connect with others, creating a larger, stronger social network that gave them the ‘social capital’ they needed to cope with long-term mental health conditions.
The study concluded that pets play a unique and valuable role “in the management of long-term mental health problems.”
This includes mental health problems ranging from anxiety, depression, to even severe and acute PTSD.
The Benefits of Sharing Your Life with a Pet
In addition to the benefits for our mental well-being, pets bring us physical rewards.
Over the years, researchers have spent hours examining the impact pets have on our blood pressure. Their findings suggest that owning a dog can extend the life of heart attack survivors, and help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Other pets have a similar effect, but none as noteworthy as the dog, whose need for exercise increases their owners’ level of physical activity, lowering their blood pressure even more.
Animals also bring responsibility and routine to our lives.
They force us to engage regardless of how you’re feeling. Depressed, tired, stressed, or anxious, we’re obligated to get out of bed, and care for our pet.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, 3 out of 4 pet owners said their stress levels dropped when they spent time with a dog, cat or other animal companions, increasing their sense of wellbeing.
As we mentioned earlier, pets can help us meet new people and establish stronger social bonds. Not only are they excellent companions, but they also facilitate our relationships with others, making them an important element in creating safe, friendly, and healthy communities.
Even babies benefit from growing up around animal companions, supposedly developing more robust immune systems from this interaction.
Dr. Eija Bergroth, a pediatrician at Finland’s Kuopio University Hospital, believes this is because “the exposure to pets somehow matures the immune system so when the child meets the microbes, he might be better prepared for them.”
Studies also suggest that children who grow up with pets have higher self-esteem, better social skills, and improved cognitive development.
Mature pet owners benefit even more than most, requiring fewer trips to the doctor and decreasing feelings of loneliness while also giving them a new purpose in life. As mentioned above, some pets (like dogs) have the additional advantage of needing regular exercise. That means a dog can make you live a healthier lifestyle.
If you get a particularly active breed, like a Border Collie or Australian Cattle Dog, it’s the canine equivalent of having your own personal trainer — believe me, I speak from experience!
For many years, experts believed that sleeping with, kissing and being licked by your pet can make you sick, but more recent research suggests the opposite is true. Assuming you and your pet are both in good health, sleeping together can actually improve the quality of our your sleep.
Which Pet Is the Best for Owner Wellbeing?
As someone who has shared my life with dogs for years, I’m naturally biased to believe dogs are best. However, all pets have their benefits.
Birds, for instance, are attention-seeking and sociable, encouraging their owners to interact with them and keeping them on their toes with their wide range of vocalizations. Cats can provide great companionship and love, and are typically ‘less maintenance’ than dogs. Even stroking a bunny, guinea pig, hamster, or gerbil can be calming.
How to Enjoy A Healthy Lifestyle with a Pet
Pets have lots of benefits, but as the saying goes, “a dog is for life, not just for Christmas.”
Taking on a pet is a serious commitment and the burden of responsibility can increase your stress levels if you’re not prepared for it.
Aside from your pet’s basic needs — water, food, and shelter — it will also need some level of socializing and training. Dogs, in particular, need basic obedience training and socialization if you’re to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship.
Before getting a pet, consider whether you have the time and the resources to care for it for the rest of its life and, if you have any concerns about it, consider one of the alternatives below.
How to Get a Pet Health Boost Without Becoming an Owner
You don’t have to own a pet to get the benefits of interacting with animal companions. For example, rescue centers and shelters rely on volunteers to help with walking the animals and keeping them company. Or, you could make a side-business of dog walking for pet owners in your community.
If you want a more intimate experience, you could even adopt or borrow a dog for a day. Puppy rental services are popping up across the world, allowing non-pet-owners to care for someone else’s dog for a specified period. In this win-win scenario, you get the fur fix you need while helping out the owners, alleviating separation anxiety in the dog, and making sure she’s properly cared for.
Depending on what you’re hoping to achieve through your animal interaction, another possibility is to contact a local animal-assisted therapist. With their therapeutic dogs by their side, these qualified professionals can help relieve symptoms of anxiety, help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, develop social interactions and manage behavioral problems.
A pet is more than just a companion — in some ways, they are also therapists and doctors. A dog can sense when its owner’s not feeling well and may even become more affectionate and attentive as a result. They feel us and respond to us, some can even sniff out dangerous conditions and imbalances in our bodies, like low blood sugar. A pet could truly be your life-saver.
Of course, it’s not all one way, and pets have certain needs that we, as owners, need to fulfill. I don’t know about you, but, in my experience, a bowl of food, some fresh water, and 30-60 minutes of exercise a day is a small price to pay for the love, joy and sense of wellbeing I get from being with my dogs.
You may also enjoy reading Saving Sadie: Loving A Dog With Special Needs…and Paying It Forward by Joal Derse