9 Science-Backed Reasons Pets Make You Healthier and Happier
In the U.S. alone, 68 percent of households include a pet. And although you may pride yourself on giving your beloved pooch or kitty a safe, happy home, it's not just the animal who's reaping benefits. Pet owners, particularly those who have dogs and cats (but fish and guinea pigs are great, too!), stand to gain quite a bit from the relationship, not to mention years on their life. In fact, over the past decade alone, countless scientists have worked to discover just how our pets can boost our physical and mental health. Of course, Fido can't cure heart disease or reverse the effects of diabetes or stand in for a certified therapist, but studies have shown that caring for an animal still does some serious good.
Read on to better understand the science-backed reasons pets make people healthier and happier.
Certain Pets Can Help Combat Allergies
Early exposure to dogs — and to a lesser extent, cats — in infancy has been shown to reduce the risk of childhood allergies. That's because their microbes — often referred to as "dog dust," or the dried flakes of skin that fall from their coat — are introduced into the home of pet owners and then influence the bacteria in the gut and "change the immune response in the airways," Susan Lynch, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, wrote in her study on this surprisingly protective quality.
Dogs Protect Against Childhood Eczema and Even Asthma
Like with allergies, adequate exposure to dogs can protect infants from developing the skin condition eczema and even asthma. "Many people don't know there is a progression from eczema . . . to asthma," allergist Gagandeep Cheema noted in his study, which showed that even pregnant women can begin reaping these benefits for their unborn children. "We found a mother's exposure to dogs before the birth of a child is significantly associated with lower risk of eczema by age 2."
Animals Keep You Moving
Several studies have been conducted to determine the relationship between dog ownership and physical activity. Overall, approximately 60 percent of dog owners walk their dog an average of 160 minutes per week, with four walks per week. By that benchmark alone, dog owners engage in more walking than non-dog owners. Further, one study found that pet owners who walk their dogs got up to 30 minutes more exercise a day than nonwalkers. Even cats and other playful house pets can offer opportunities for expending energy.
Pets Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease
Can animals really mitigate cardiovascular disease? High levels of cholesterol and triglycerides can increase your risk of heart disease, but owning a pet can lower both. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can also decrease blood pressure. For those with preexisting heart conditions, a pet can actually increase their chances of surviving a heart attack. Translation: if you have a pet, you're already less likely to die from heart disease!
Interacting With Pets May Help Kids With Autism
A study published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing lends solid support to the idea that animal interaction benefits many children with autism. The lead researcher certainly emphasized the need to consider each child's sensitivity as well as family dynamics before considering pet ownership, but 94 percent of those families who introduced a pet reported that their child "bonded strongly" and "enjoyed interacting with dogs." Other research involving children with autism found that those who had a pet from a young age tended to have greater social skills. In fact, even short stints with a live animal — like a guinea pig — provides a temporary improvement in social behavior.
Pets Can Ease Stress in Alzheimer's Patients
Research at the University of California at Davis concluded that Alzheimer's patients suffer less stress, have fewer anxious outbursts, and see a decrease in aggressive behavior if there is a dog or cat in the home.
Pets Can Boost Your Mental Health
Did you know that stroking your cat can make you calmer, and that watching your fish swim in their tank can actually ease tense muscles and lower your pulse rate? Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, while increasing feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine in your brain. In fact, according to a National Institutes of Health study, people recover from a stressful situation more quickly when they're with their pets than with a partner or friend.
Animals Keep Elderly People More Engaged
The benefits of pets continue to pay off as you age. Want to up your chances of maintaining full physical function in your later years? A year-long study in Canada found that the ability to perform "activities of daily living" for those 65 years and older deteriorated more for those who did not currently own a pet than those who did have a pet in their home.
Owning a Dog Can Help You Live Longer
Although some studies over the years have only noted a neutral effect between pet ownership and lifespan, a recent study suggests a furry friend may actually extend your life! Scientists found that dog owners were likely to live longer than those who didn't have a pet, with a 24 percent reduction in risk for death from any cause.