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
Katy Summer, Community Manager at Pawshake, a website and app that allows pet owners to find trusted pet-sitters, shares 5 top health benefits from keeping a pet.
- A pet can bring a family together. A happy, social family can have a massive positive contribution to each and every family member’s mental health. When owning a pet, your daily routine suddenly undergoes a radical change, and training and playing with your pet together gives that extra quality time otherwise spent in front of the TV or in your bedroom.
- You will lead a much fitter lifestyle, particularly if your dog is energetic who loves to explore parks. A brisk walk or playing outside for a couple of hours every day has a profound effect in lowering heart-related diseases. If you don’t have a pet yourself and want to hang out with an animal to boost wellbeing, sign up to Pawshake where you can become a pet-sitter for the week, day, or just for a few hours.
- Companion animals also improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and regulating the heart rate during stressful situations. In a 2002 study, researchers measured changes in heart rate and blood pressure among people who had a dog or cat, compared to those who did not, when participants were under stress (performing a timed math task). Petting and stroking pets were also big indicators as when people spent time petting animals their stress levels subsided.
- Pets help children develop greater empathy, higher self-esteem, and increased participation in social and physical activities by building social relations with their pet.
- People see pets as non-judgemental companions, and it's a comforting to have that company, especially for elderly people. In universities and nursing home settings, interaction with visiting dogs has led to more social behaviours, less anxiety and feelings of loneliness