Pets Can Heal Us

by Meghan Erkkinen September 30, 2014

Since the 1960s, pet ownership in the United States has quadrupled, a growth rate much faster than the human population. About 67 million American homes count pets among their family members. Households with pets account for about 62 percent of the households in the United States, nearly twice the number of households with children.

If you’re a pet owner or pet parent, you can probably rattle off a long list of the benefits your furry friend brings to your life. For many people, cats and dogs offer companionship and unconditional love. For others, pets provide stimulation for mind, body, and spirit. More and more, science is showing that pet owners reap significant rewards, including boosts to health and happiness. Below are four ways pets improve our physical and mental health.

#1 Pets can improve your heart health. Cats and dogs not only hold a special place in our hearts, but they may actually help improve the health of this vital organ. Various studies show that pet owners experience lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, which decrease the risk for heart attack and heart disease. Pets also improve the chances of survival among heart patients. Additionally, because dog owners tend to spend more time outside exercising, they may experience a lower incidence of obesity and of vitamin D deficiency, both of which can improve heart health.

#2 Cats and dogs reduce stress and loneliness. For many pet owners, the claim that a cat or dog can make them happier seems like an easy conclusion. But research shows that pets can improve mental health in more ways than one. Your furry (or non-furry depending upon the animal) companion may help reduce depression rates and diminish loneliness. Dogs encourage owners to get outside, which decreases social isolation. Pets can also help people reduce stress. In fact, one study found that spending a few minutes along with a pet can reduce stress even more that spending time with a spouse or a close friend! The exercise, companionship, and connectedness are all natural ways dogs (and often cats) can keep us emotionally healthy.

#3 Service animals help the sick and disabled. Guide dogs have been helping people with visual impairments for decades. But increasingly, animals are trained to help individuals with other disabilities as well. Dogs, for example, can be trained to detect seizures in neurological patients and blood sugar drops in diabetics. Dogs and other pets are also trained to provide comfort and companionship to psychiatric patients, hospital inpatients, and children with autism.

#4 Pets may actually decrease allergy risks. While many people cannot have pets due to allergies, one study suggests that having an animal in the house may reduce a child’s risk of developing allergies. The research showed that infants who had dogs in their homes were as much as 33 percent less likely to develop allergies and also developed stronger immune systems. While this provides little comfort to current allergy sufferers, it may be enough to persuade new or prospective parents to adopt an animal companion.

Research has documented myriad ways in which pet owners may benefit. But pet ownership should not be taken lightly. In many cases, adopting an animal is a decades-long commitment that requires financial and emotional investment. If, after careful consideration, you’ve decided to bring a furry, feathered, or scaled friend into your household, visit the American Kennel Club to find a breeder, shelter, or rescue pound near you.

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