If you’ve ever had a pet, you may have already noticed that animals can brighten up your day. But what many people don’t know is that they can do much more than that for you.
Health Benefits of Owning a Pet
According to the 2021-2022 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, almost 70% of American families have pets. Although numbers may vary in other surveys, they consistently reflect that at least half of the U.S. households own an animal, being dogs and cats the most popular species that people buy or adopt.
But you don’t have to get a dog or a cat in order to experience the benefits of pet ownership. Birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, and even lizards can have therapeutic effects on children, adults, and elders.
Mental Health Benefits
Perhaps the most evident fact regarding the mental health benefits of owning a pet is that it can improve your psychological well-being. However, animals are not only mood boosters. They can keep you healthy in many different ways.
Contact with animals helps you control your stress, anxiety, and even depression. Studies have shown that pets reduce your levels of cortisol, which is your primary stress hormone. At the same time, they can increase your levels of serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin (hormones that are related to feelings of happiness, pleasure, and relaxation) and stimulate social interaction.
On the other hand, equine therapy is currently used to improve up to 26 medical conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and common neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism and ADHD.
Physical Health Benefits
Given that animals can help you manage your stress, they can reduce the physical health issues related to it.
If you’re chronically stressed, you can suffer not only from depression and irritability but also from headaches, muscle tension, insomnia, weight gain, ulcers, hormonal imbalances (such as hyperthyroidism or even diabetes), muscle pain, high blood pressure, and heart disease. You’re also at higher risk of having a stroke. And while pets are not a magical solution, they can calm you down and prevent stress-related complications.
They can also reduce your triglyceride and cholesterol levels, which translates into a healthier cardiovascular system. Interestingly, therapy dogs have also managed to improve cardiopulmonary pressures in patients with heart failure and pain ratings in ICU patients.
Additionally, horses are used in hippotherapy to help people with scoliosis, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, etc. And while cats are known to cause allergies in certain people, being exposed to them since childhood can prepare the kids’ immune systems to fight all kinds of allergens.
Other Health Benefits of Pets
Pets can provide comfort and social support and make you feel less lonely. Many older adults can benefit from this, as they tend to feel isolated and sad due to retirement, their children having their own families (maybe living far away), etc. Pets can help them reconnect with the positive things of life, relieve physical and emotional pain, and increase their energy.
Pets can also help people socialize with other humans. For example, if you take your dog for a walk in the park, you can meet other dog owners, being the dog the big conversation starter. Or you can join an online group of dog owners.
Particularly dogs can also make you exercise and lose weight. When you take them out for a walk, you go out and walk (or even run) as well. Or, if your dog is willing to run next to you, you could feel more motivated to run. This part of pet care often becomes a healthy habit for dog owners, apart from the benefits it brings for the dog itself.
Being responsible for a pet can also add other healthy routines to your life. For example, knowing that you have to feed your pet won’t let you stay in bed longer than you should, which can make you adopt a more active lifestyle.
If you have children, interaction with animals can teach them a lot about responsibility, empathy, and compassion. It can promote their social skills and confidence and calm them down if they’re irritable or overly hyperactive. Overall, pets are mentally and even physically stimulating for the younger ones of the family, essential for their development.
Which Pet Should I Choose?
Despite the health benefits of pet ownership, not everyone can have a pet —or at least not the pet they’d like.
You might be limited by where you live and how much time and money you’re willing to dedicate to taking care of an animal daily. Different pets have different needs, but all of them require food, water, and appropriate habitat to live happily and healthily.
Animals can get stressed, too. And they can get sick, especially under bad conditions, including a dirty environment, malnutrition, and lack of disease prevention (not taking them to the vet for checkups, not vaccinating them, and not deworming them regularly).
This is not only dangerous for them but also you. Stressed animals may attack you and cause you some serious injuries. Between 2005 and 2013, there were about 337,103 cases of dog bites each year in American ERs, with 1,7% of patients requiring hospitalization.
On the other hand, sick animals may pass their illness on you or your family if they get any zoonosis (a term that refers to a disease that can spread from animals to humans). Most common zoonotic diseases in the U.S. include ringworms, rabies, salmonellosis, giardiasis, cat scratch disease, brucellosis, toxocariasis, campylobacteriosis, and cryptosporidiosis.
Apart from keeping your pets healthy and clean, you can keep most animal bacteria and parasites out of your body by handwashing, especially after being in contact with pets.