Animals play an important role in many people’s lives and are often valued companions. Having a pet can certainly positively affect the quality of our lives, but is their companionship beneficial to our health?
The evidence is compelling – research shows pet owners tend to visit doctors less, that owning a pet lowers the risk of heart disease and high cholesterol and reduces blood pressure. It also reduces stress and makes people feel less lonely. The strong attachment a person forms to a pet is associated with lower levels of depression and greater self-esteem.
And pet ownership also increases empathy and boosts popularity. A 2010 study found the presence of dogs increased the number and length of people’s conversations with others in the community.
In more than three different studies in 2011, Dr Allen McConnell, professor of psychology at Miami University, discovered consistent evidence that pets ‘represent important social relationships, conferring significant benefits to owners’. The third study found pets made people feel as positive as their best friend did.
Try it out
- Borrow a dog. Exercise guidelines for adults advise at least 30 minutes a day, but 2009 research from pet healthcare company Bob Martin found dog-walkers average 24 minutes twice a day. If you pop to the park with a dog, not only will you benefit physically, you’ll also benefit psychologically. If you haven’t got a dog, website such as Pawshake and borrowmydoggy.com links pet owners with local people for walks, weekends, even holidays. Just once a month will have an impact.
- Buy something with fins, feathers or fur… It may sound like the pet in question has to be a dog, but this isn’t so. ‘We found no evidence that type of pet mattered,’ McConnell says. ‘People were able to anthropomorphise a variety of animals in our studies such as dogs, cats, horses, lizards – even a goat. It seems “the power of pets” is more about what lies in the owner’s mind than what lies at their feet.’
MARTHA ROBERTS is an award-winning UK health writer and mental health blogger at mentalhealthwise.com
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