Health & Wellness Articles

The Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

How Animals Boost Health & Happiness

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I grew up in a garden apartment development in New York, quite different from the suburban home my children know. There were tons of other kids around, my best friend lived downstairs, and we walked or rode bikes everywhere. I was never envious of my friends and cousins who lived in private homes, except for one thing: Most of them had dogs, and I could not. They were not permitted in our development.
 
As a kid, I longed for a puppy. My folks promised that if we moved, I could get a dog. I left for college from that same apartment and still go back to visit my folks there to this day.
 
When my daughter turned seven, she began begging us for a dog. I could empathize with her longing, as I felt the same way when I was a little girl. Living in a house with a backyard, I saw no reason why my kids shouldn’t grow up with a pet. And of course, I could finally fulfill my childhood dream of having a dog of my own. We got Emmie, a beautiful golden retriever, who filled our home and hearts with love for 13 years.
 
Little did I know that bringing a puppy into our house was a positive step toward keeping my family not just happy but healthy. At that point I was totally unaware of the health benefits of owning a pet. I just knew it would add joy to our lives. 
 
The world of positive psychology has taught us that happier people are healthier. It seems moods such as happiness, optimism and playfulness all improve our immune system. Playfulness just comes along with the territory when you bring a puppy, kitten—or any pet, really—into your home. 
 
Emotional Health
When it comes to the emotional benefits of owning a pet, there are many. Pet owners report decreased stress and anxiety, depression and loneliness.  Behavioral psychologists tell us that human connection is one of our most basic needs. We all seem happiest when we interact with others. Taking care of a pet, attending to their needs and enjoying the companionship intensifies our feelings of being connected, in similar ways to that of human connection. 
 
To that end, owning a pet increases our human connections as well, because it increases our opportunities for socialization. For instance, I work from a home office, and I speak with most of my clients by phone. At times it can be quite isolating. A few years after Emmie left us, Ozzy the Labradoodle joined our family. He lies quietly by my feet while I work at my desk and is my playmate when I take a time out from work.
 
There’s nothing like his begging eyes or rapid back-and-forth pacing to let me know it’s time for a break.  Taking a walk often leads to stopping and chatting with my neighbors. At other times, visiting the dog park or comparing notes with a fellow dog owner in the pet store offers a chance to interact with others I might never meet if not for Ozzy. 
 
Being around animals also has a positive impact on mood. Canine-assisted therapy programs exist throughout the country. So much so, that we could even consider them part of the treatment plan that aids in recuperation from illness and surgeries. Children in hospitals who have visits from therapy dogs and other animals such as kittens or bunnies show a more rapid recovery. 
 
Therapy dogs have been brought into nursing homes to help decrease depression and increase mobility in elderly adults. Animals are being used to help veterans avoid or recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. Vets who own dogs display less PTSD symptoms, have a quicker adjustment to civilian life, and have less incidence of suicide. Pets have even shown to aid in recovery and the return to a normal life after individuals suffer traumatic events such as sexual assault, death of a loved one, or loss of a job. 
 
So clearly, there are tons of emotional benefits to owning a pet, which equate to more positive experiences and greater happiness, which seems to equate to an enhanced immune system, which then translates to being healthier. But do we actually see physical health parameters that are positively impacted by pet ownership?
 
Physical Health
Many studies have demonstrated that pet owners have decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels when compared to non-pet owners. Lack of exercise and chronic stress are both considered risk factors for cardiac disease. Perhaps it’s the increased physical activity that walking or exercising with our dogs provides, or our pet’s ability to calm us and reduce anxiety, but indeed individuals who share their residence with pets have a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes. If a cardiac event does occur, pet owners have a reduced risk of a second attack or death than non-pet owners. In individuals suffering from chronic conditions that cause pain, those who have a pet in their home display better pain management.
 
So will owning a dog or cat guarantee we won’t suffer a major illness or trauma? Of course not! But it definitely appears worth considering pet ownership as another healthy lifestyle habit to complement good nutrition, exercise, weight control and stress management.
 
One fascinating area of research examines the ways in which dogs have helped individuals who are currently suffering with disease and illness. There are scientific reports from the past two decades of dogs sniffing out cancerous growths, and the field of canine cancer screening is growing and promising. Who knows, one day we may visit our doctor and along with an EKG and chest X-ray, get sniffed by a furry friend!  According to a 2000 article in the British Medical Journal, more than one-third of dogs living with people who have diabetes have been reported to display behavioral changes when their owners' blood sugar drops, sometimes even before patients themselves were aware of it. 
 
Children who grow up with pets seem to enjoy benefits that could positively affect their growth and development. If a dog or cat is already in the house before a baby arrives, that child is less likely to develop allergies. Children with pets attend school three weeks more per year than those who don’t.  Owning any pet, even a fish or hamster, can help with the emotional development of children by fostering compassion and teaching responsibility. Dogs are becoming part of the therapy team to help children with autism, ADD and other psycho-emotional problems. 
 
Choosing the Right Pet
So perhaps I’ve convinced you that adding a pet to your abode is a good idea, one that will make you happier and healthier. Before running out to the nearest pet shop, there are lots of factors to consider.  Choosing what type of pet or breed is right for you is an important decision not to be taken lightly. Owning a pet is a huge responsibility and can be quite expensive. You need to consider whether you can afford the time and money that goes into raising a pet responsibly. After all, you don’t want pet ownership to increase your stress.
 
If cost is the only factor holding you back, finding your pet at a shelter can save you considerably. By adopting a pet, you save thousands that purebred animals purchased through breeders cost, and often the pet shelter offers reduced or low-cost inoculations and veterinarian expenses. 
 
If you decide that the time and circumstances are not right, there are still many ways to enjoy the health benefits of animals. Offer to walk your neighbor’s dog, visit a nearby horse farm or animal shelter, and visit friends who own pets. Even a visit to the zoo can heighten your mood. 
 
If a four-legged pet isn’t possible, perhaps a smaller pet is. Just watching fish and birds has a calming and relaxing effect on us. Ever wonder why so many doctor’s offices have fish tanks in their waiting room? Feeding and keeping the cages clean of pets such as hamsters or gerbils offer your children growth opportunities for being responsible, along with friendship and companionship.
 
The little girl who convinced us to add a dog to our family is now a young women living on her own across the country. The yearning and longing for a puppy has returned. Unfortunately, now she lives in an apartment building that doesn’t allow pets, 12-hour workdays make caring for one unrealistic, and the cost factor would tax her budget. So, how does my daughter manage to gain the emotional and physical benefits of being with dogs? 
 
Whenever possible, she offers to babysit her friends’ pets when they are away for the weekend. Many of her hiking buddies own dogs. Living close to a park that allows dogs off leash, she is able to enjoy walking alongside her two and four-footed friends. A nearby animal shelter welcomes the occasional visit to play, feed or walk the dogs. And luckily, Ozzy is here, waiting patiently for my daughter's next visit to the East Coast.
 
Sources
Amanda L. Chan, "Pet Health Benefits: Study Shows Dogs And Cats May Make Kids Healthier," from Huffington Post Healthy Living, www.huffingtonpost.com.
 
CBC News, "Study reveals how service dogs help children with autism," www.cbc.ca, accessed on May 29, 2013.
 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Health Benefits of Pets" www.cdc.gov, accessed on May 29, 2013.
 
Jeff Hamilton, "Pets & Kids With ADD," Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com.
 
Paws for Healing, "Canine Assisted-Therapy Information," www.pawsforhealing.org, accessed on May 29, 2013.
 
Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, "Walking for Healthy Hearts," rechai.missouri.edu, accessed on May 29, 2013.
 
RSPCA, "What are the health benefits of pet ownership?" kb.rspca.org.au, accessed on May 29, 2013.  
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Member Comments

  • We have 3 cats and 1 dog. The dog greets me every time with a wag of the tail and unconditional love, she is my constant companion when I am home and picks up on my moods. My Maine Coon baby just crawled up in my arms and snuggled under my chin with a purr. This is not something she frequently does so it it is precious when she does. These moments bring me joy.
  • We have cats, canaries and fish- all of which play a role in our well-being. The cats provide good company and lots of love, and the fish relaxation... there is nothing better than the happy purr of the cats to ease stress and elevate mood... and the canary song provides a great and happy start to any day!!!
  • My partner and I have a dog and a cat. Our cat was a stray and I am not sure where our dog came from.
    But they both provide a lot of love and compassion for the whole family.
  • LCERTUCHE
    Walking with my 4-legged fur baby a Borador (Lab/Border Collie) reminds me to be thankful as she romps, delighting over each and everything along the way. Her pure joy lifts me from myself and everyday modern life. Her happiness is contagious.
  • This article is so true! We just lost our 15 year old dog and miss him very much. We found him at an animal shelter and never knew exactly what combination of breeds he was, but he was perfect for us!
    In those 15 years he helped me garden, went for walks, snowshoe hikes and skiing with us. He let our grandchildren cuddle him and he chased bears away. He watched over us and we took care of him. When we acquired kittens, he let them climb up his long legs and was there friend from the start. What a dog!!
  • I don't know what I'd do without mine. I grew up with dogs, but have been owned by at least 1 cat since I graduated from college, almost 30 years ago. (I now have 3!) No human children, just furry ones. My "kids" have saved me thousands of dollars that would probably have been spent on therapy over the years. There's just something about being around them that is so soothing and calming, not to mention they are tremendously entertaining!

    Thank you, SP, for this great article!
  • Years ago, one of my friends told me that her neighbor's black lab would "sense" when she was in a low blood sugar phase (she's diabetic), and would bark and wake her up. She was just convinced it sensed when she was in trouble, because when her blood sugars were normal and she was just asleep, he didn't bark. She lived in a tiny trailer and really couldn't afford dog food so that's why she didn't have a dog or cat of her own. But she had her own love for the neighbor's big dog!!
  • When my husband finally made good on his promise of getting me a dog, he had no idea of how it would benefit him too. I of course loved her from the start, such a sweet face, sweet disposition, and lovable little white ball of fur.

    My husband grew to love her but they became even closer when he was out of work for 4 months due to surgery on both ankles. He told me that she kept him going, and kept him sane and in good spirits, just by being there.

    Although she sleeps in her crate, or her "room" as we call it, at night, when my husbands sleeps during the day,( he works nights) she is on a blanket beside the bed, that way she isn't alone and cooped up.

    Recently I had a mild Heart Attack and was in the Hospital for a few days, as I was being treated in the E room, I made sure my husband went home to take care of the dog, and made sure he fed her and took her out before coming back to the Hospital later that evening. ( I had to be transferred to another local hospital that night and had called him to let him know. He wanted to come right away but I told him to feed and take her out. I was in good hands but she needed him to care for her needs BEFORE coming to see me)

    The few days I was in the Hospital he missed me and he told me that the dog would see him come in and she'd look for me. When I did come home I got jumped on,( not bad because she is a small 20lb dog, and I was followed,( like glue), for several days.

    She is our furry baby, and at almost 11 years old she was the best gift my husband ever gave me. (She was a Valentine's day gift back in 2005)

About The Author

Ellen Goldman Ellen Goldman
Ellen founded EllenG Coaching, LLC to help individuals struggling with health issues that can be impacted by positive lifestyle change, such as weight loss, stress management, exercise, and life/work balance. As a certified professional wellness coach and certified personal trainer, Ellen holds a BS and Masters in Physical Education and is certified by ACSM, AFAA, and Wellcoaches Corporation. Visit her at http://www.ellengcoaching.com/. Get her complimentary report, 52 Tips, Tools & Tricks to Permanent Weight Loss Without Going on a Diet, at www.endtheweightlossbattle.com.