More than the value of a warming snuggle, pets improve our happiness and heath.

You've probably been there—you were sad or stressed and next thing you feel is a purring nudge or a lick on the hand. Science has proven that animals are sentient beings. But what about pets being our medicine? Pet parents undoubtedly takes their pet's healthy and happiness very seriously (just look at the endless boutique options available like orthopedic pet beds and pricy CBD treats), but what people may not realize is that our pets reciprocate in being major helpers in our mental and physical wellbeing.

a smiling woman snuggling her cat
Credit: Mykola Sosiukin / EyeEm / Getty Images

Plus, there's enough data to show that having a pet (unless you're really allergic to them) can improve your health, increase your longevity, and give you a sense of meaning and belonging. Here are some of the ways in which you and your furry friend help one another.

Pets Relieve Stress

The moment stress hits, your body enters a fight-or-flight mode, releasing cortisol hormones. Pets, especially dogs, can be very in tune with their owner's emotions and can sense this tension and sadness. Plus, petting your cat or dog is actually therapeutic—linked with reducing cortisol levels and increasing the relaxation hormone oxytocin (otherwise known as "the cuddle chemical") that also decreases blood pressure and heart rate, and boosts immune function.

Patricia Pendry, an associate professor in WSU's department of human development says, "just 10 minutes can have a significant impact." She adds, "Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone." Related, many universities have started "Pet Your Stress Away" programs, where students interact with dogs and cats to help relieve pressures.

Pets Increase Heart Health

The American Heart Association reports that owning a pet reduces heart disease risk factors, including lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, and increasing longevity. This is especially good news for dogs owners as Dr. Thomas Lee, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School says, "I think the data are pretty compelling that people with dogs have better health. There isn't evidence that other animals, like cats, are associated with better outcomes."

Plus, in 2019, a review of roughly 70 years of research discovered that owning a dog lowers your risk of dying (from any cause) by 24 percent, and for those who've already had a stroke or heart attack, their risk drops by 31 percent.

Dogs Up Our Fitness Level

Not surprisingly, people who walk their dogs are more likely to get the recommended amount of physical activity than those who don't own a dog. In a study involving over 5,200 adults, results showed that dog owners had a 54 percent higher chance of getting the recommended amount of exercise. In case you were wondering, the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic both agree to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both spread throughout the week.

Pets Love Back

Why do our pets love us so much—besides the treats in our pockets? No doubt we are bonded and some of us consider our pets like a family member, but whether animals love us the same way we love them, we may never know. Some studies have shown that dogs recognize and respond to their owner's faces, voices, and smell with a joyfulness that can be compared to that between parents and children. Tail wags, purrs, nudges, nose kisses and general excitement when a pet sees us (despite how long we are gone) seem like enough evidence of love to us.

Pets Keep Us Social

Ever been to a dog park on a Friday after work? You wonder if the pet parents are there for their dogs or for themselves. Probably a mix of both. Pets (mainly dogs) are total social magnets and help us get out of the house, make friends, appear more approachable (even date-worthy?) and provide social support. In one study, people in wheelchairs who owned a dog were smiled at more and had more conversations than those without a dog.

According to a study, pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners. Along with this, pets can be an amazing natural antidote to depression and loneliness by providing companionship. Richard Louv in his recent book, Our Wild Calling, says about animals, "They act as anti-rumination agents. They pull us out of ourselves and bring us into ourselves. They lead us home."

Pets Boost Immune Function

study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reports that babies raised with a dog or cat during their first years reduces their chances of having pet allergies in childhood and later on, and lowers their risk of asthma, pneumonia, and bronchiolitis. There's even new research possibly linking microbes that pets bring into our home and the helpful ones living in our digestive tract. Jack Gilbert, the director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago, told The New York Times, "Exposure to animal bacteria may trigger bacteria in our gut to change how they metabolize the neurotransmitters that have an impact on mood and other mental functions."

Pets Soothe Children

Animals-assisted therapy, a complementary or alternative form of therapy that incorporates animals as a type of treatment, has substantial benefits—especially for individuals with autism. Beyond cats and dogs, interaction with animals as varied as horses, alpacas, and dolphins guides autistic children from their confusing and closed worlds and helps them learn to trust, de-stress, communicate, choose appropriate behavior, care for other living creatures, and try something new.


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