We all know that eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, controlling stress, and getting enough sleep every night are vital components to overall health and longevity. But what if you found out you could further reduce your risk of heart disease and death without limiting carbs or taking another supplement? What if the same thing could reduce the risk of your kids developing environmental allergies, and improve mental health and well-being? Interested? Then it may be time to check out a local pet adoption event because these benefits (and more) are all associated with pet ownership!
“I can’t imagine life without pets. Animals provide unconditional love and acceptance. There is no way to describe all that these wonderful companions give to us.”
According to a 2019 national survey, 67% of US households own a pet.1 Pet ownership comes with more than just unconditional love and endless entertainment. Additional health and wellness benefits of pet ownership include:
Improved cardiovascular risk and lower mortality
Pets are often responsible for filling their owner’s heart with love, but studies have also demonstrated that owning a pet can have added cardiovascular benefits and may even reduce the risk of death due to cardiovascular disease (as well as other causes). A 12-year long Swedish study involving 3.4 million people aged 40-80 showed that dog owners had a lower risk of death over the course of the study.2 Pet ownership has also been associated in a number of studies with reductions in cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, improved cholesterol patterns, as well as increased heart rate variability and autonomic function.3
Reduced risk of allergies and stronger overall immune system
The term “immunity” refers to not one specific thing, but a collection of mechanisms employed by the body in an effort to guard against agents in the environment. This includes microorganisms, foods, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, environmental allergens such as pollen and animal hair/dander. Pets can be a great source of a number of these, and interacting with a pet may affect immunity levels. Researchers have hypothesized that pets increase exposure to a greater number of allergens and other microbes. Published research has shown that growing up with a cat or dog can lead to fewer allergies later in life.4 The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology revealed that children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall.5
Enhanced stress management capabilities
Pet therapy is becoming increasingly popular in a variety of ways. Many people rely on animals for support, whether in an official capacity as a trained service animal, or in the role of a house pet or registered emotional support animal.
“I know plenty of people whose lives would be significantly different if they didn’t have their companion animals helping them through life: a woman whose dog would alert her when she was about to have a seizure, and people whose assistance dogs help modulate their anxiety levels to function more fully in the world.”
Veterans, children and students are just a few groups who have shown that people can experience less stress with the presence of a pet. A 12-month study of veterans with PTSD symptoms who were involved in a therapeutic dog ownership program revealed that participants experienced decreased symptoms of post-traumatic stress along with increased feelings of self-compassion.6
“As someone living with PTSD, animals have been a great source of comfort and truly a gift on my healing journey. I started riding at the age of five and cannot imagine my life without a horse. Just being in the presence of my horses, I feel a sense of peace and tranquility that heals my body, mind and soul. Horseback riding and being in nature allows me to re-balance and reconnect with myself and reduces feelings of depression and anxiety.”
Children often have less developed emotional and physiological responses to stress, as well as reduced cognitive coping mechanisms to self-regulate their stress response.7 In a study of typically developing children between the ages of 7 and 12, it was found that perceived stress during a novel stressor is moderated in the presence of a dog.8 University students are another group who experience a good deal of stress. In a study of pet therapy, students experienced a statistically significant decrease in stress markers when interacting with therapeutic animals.9
Pet therapy may also benefit the workplace. Stress is a leading contributor to employee performance and morale.10 Researchers examined how the presence of dogs impacted worker stress throughout the course of a work day. They found that dogs in the workplace may buffer the impact of stress and make the workplace more satisfying for those with whom they come into contact.11
For some, time with pets is the ultimate stress reliever. “As a practitioner, business owner and mom, my stress levels are inherently high. Cats make a huge difference in helping me recover from stress, giving me a chance to take a break and be in the present moment.”
NDs share how they incorporate the therapeutic benefits of animals in patient care
“I recommend adopting a pet when a patient is grieving the loss of a pet, spouse or other loved one as a form of emotional support. Our office is dog-friendly and one of our doctors brings her dog to work with her. We encourage patients with emotional support dogs to bring them along to appointments.”
“One of my patients was a mother of two small children dealing with depression. Myself along with her other therapists, suggested that she get a dog. She rescued a boxer and within a few months, her outlook on life and connection with her children improved significantly.”
“A 60-year-old woman who complained of stress and anxiety, especially related to her health, got a cat. In taking care of her cat, her anxiety levels decreased, and she felt a sense of companionship. Many people feel isolated and alone, which actually becomes a stressor and causes further health issues. Having a pet can make a huge difference for these patients.”
“I ask patients about pet ownership and find that pets often have a significant role in people’s lives. Many pet owners view their pets as family members. For example, I saw a patient who was experiencing a high level of stress due to work and a recent divorce. As part of his wellness plan, I suggested that he make time to take his beloved golden retriever to a dog park. He started going to the dog park on a daily basis and felt more relaxed and better able to cope with life’s circumstances.”
Decreased risk of obesity and augmented activity level
Despite intensive campaigns to promote awareness and lifestyle interventions for obesity, obesity and physical inactivity continue to climb, reaching epidemic proportions. In the US, over 60% of adults are overweight or obese, and fewer than 50% achieve the recommended amount of physical activity.12 Studies have found that people who walk dogs tend to have lower incidence of obesity and are 53% more likely to meet recommendations for moderate to vigorous physical activity.12 The benefits are not limited to adults. The US has seen a threefold increase in childhood obesity since 1970 with around 20% of children aged 6-19 being considered obese.13 However, research has shown that for younger children, the chances of being overweight or obese were cut in half for those who owned a dog versus those who did not.12
Fosters social interaction
Creating, developing, and maintaining social connections with others is an important part of maintaining our long-term health. However, for many people, this is no easy feat. Social anxiety, communication difficulties, and lack of opportunity can all be challenges in forming social bonds. Pets can be great social networkers, helping to facilitate new connections, building support and rapport with others. A 2015 study found that people who were pet owners were over 60% more likely to meet and get to know the people in their neighborhood.11 Although dog owners were the most likely to make new friends while spending time walking their dogs, other types of pets such as cats, rabbits, and even snakes can support a sense of connection as well.2
NDs share how they’ve become involved in the community because of their love for animals
Dr. Mather has volunteered at the Oregon Humane Society with her niece. She adopted one of her two cats while volunteering.
Dr. Arce and her husband donate toys and blankets to the Yonkers animal shelter. They also volunteer their time to the Mount Vernon animal shelter and Wildlife SOS in an effort to help people realize the importance of rescuing animals. Dr. Arce and her husband are pictured below with their two dogs, both rescued from North Shore Animal League. They also have two cats which were also rescued.
“I have five cats, three dogs and two fabulous horses. My furry companions add to the richness of my life. I have volunteered with pet rescues for over 20 years and currently work with two rescues, FurKeeps Cat Rescue and Adopt a River Cat Rescue. I foster cats and kittens until they can find their forever homes and am very privileged to work with a remarkable group of people in rescue who are dedicated to helping both animals and people. We encounter many situations when working in pet rescue in which people need temporary homes for their animals due to unfortunate circumstances such as illness, job loss, domestic violence or homelessness, for example. We also connect people with resources in the community to help provide support. It is very rewarding to be able to help my community and be of service to both animals and people in need.”
“I run a not-for-profit organization called Cat Care. Our mission is to care for feral cats in Port Jefferson, Long Island, New York. We also care for a colony of 25 cats on my property. We also have a dachshund and a snake.”
In summary, pets can serve a multitude of therapeutic functions in addition to being a loving member of our family. The decision to bring a pet into a home should not be taken lightly, however. Pets are a lifelong commitment – so make sure you research care, temperament and lifespans of the animals you are considering, and adopt from reputable locations or rescue organizations. By picking the right pet for your family, you will not only improve your health, but the health of your pet as well!
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