Pets have long been our companions. As far back as 12,000 years ago, humans were believed to keep dogs and cats as pets. And today, this love for four-legged and sometimes feathered and scaly friends, continues to go strong. Some 67 percent of U.S. households keep a pet, which translates to about 84.9 million homes.
Beyond the joy they add to our lives, pets have been shown that they may provide a variety of physical and mental health benefits, such as decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and feelings of isolation. Read on to learn about some of these benefits.
Pets may serve as a social “ice breaker” to help people form ties in their community—an important way to fight social isolation. A 2015 study conducted in three U.S. cities and one Australian city, found that pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood compared to non-pet owners. Dog walking was cited as the most common way that pet owners made new friends. And while dogs were the most frequently mentioned pets in this study, respondents, who were interviewed by phone, also mentioned cats, chickens, sheep, rabbits, turtles and a pet snake.
Our pets may also help us form relationships where we can lean on our neighbors. Some 40 percent of pet owners reported receiving one or more types of social support from people they met through their pet. Examples of this support include borrowing a tool from a neighbor, asking for a restaurant recommendation or discussing a subject that is worrying them.
Spending time with animals has been shown to reduce levels of cortisol—a stress hormone. As stress has become a growing problem on college campuses in the U.S., some 1,000 schools are participating in animal visitation programs, where pets are brought to campus to allow students hands-on time with animals.
A 2019 study of one such program found that students who were given 10 minutes of petting time with a cat or dog had lower cortisol levels in their saliva compare to students waiting in line to participate, those shown pictures of animals, and those who waited quietly with no distractions.
Several studies show that dog owners may gain health benefits from taking their canine friends out for walks. One large meta-study, which looked at data from nine previously published studies, found that dog owners who walked their dogs were 2.5 times more likely to achieve recommended levels of physical activity, which is defined as 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
Dog walking may be a good way for seniors, in particular, to stay active and maintain their overall health. One large national study of older adults found that dog walking was linked to lower body mass index, fewer doctor visits and more frequent moderate and vigorous exercise. The respondents who regularly walked their dogs also had fewer limitations on their activities of daily living, such as getting dressed or walking across a room.
Better heart health
Studies have shown that dog owners may have lower blood pressure and resting heart rates than non-dog owners—most likely linked to the calming effect of petting a dog and the increased exercise from walking them. One recent study found that dog owners had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and lower risk of death. The study found that dog owners with heart disease experienced a 21 percent reduction in risk of death over a 12-year period.
Diabetes management in teens
Another recent study found that the act of “caring” for pets can also have health benefits. The study found that teens with Type 1 diabetes who were caring for goldfish were better able to manage their blood glucose levels. The caretaking routine had the positive effect of making them more attentive to their own disease management.
While pets offer a variety of health benefits, they also sometimes can carry germs and may be unsafe for those with compromised immune systems. If you’re interested in owning a pet, but have health concerns, it’s important to speak to your healthcare provider.
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