9 Reasons Pet Owners Are Healthier, Happier People

Written by Jeff Werber, DVM

Studies have finally caught up to what we pet lovers have always known: Pets are good for your health. Here are a few of the countless observed examples of this phenomenon.

Delving a bit deeper, here are nine of the more specific health benefits you'll get by sharing your life with a pet.

1. People who live with pets tend to feel happier and less lonely.

This is true even if they have no human companionship. Pets provide a sense of purpose, which boosts self esteem. Chronically ill people with pets are less likely to suffer from depression and isolation.

Pets have needs that can only be met by a human. This routine provides structure and meaning. Activities like walking your dog get you outside and often result in social interaction, which is also great for the mood.

2. Having a pet can help keep your blood pressure under control.

Most of us are cuddled up with our pet while relaxing or watching TV. Petting your cat or dog helps your body release a relaxation hormone and cuts down on levels of a stress hormone, which can lower your blood pressure.

Pet owners have lower blood pressure and lower heart rates during rest than non-pet owners. Petting a dog has also been shown to lower blood pressure in children with hypertension.

3. Pet parents have lower cholesterol levels.

Even with a pet, you’ll likely still have to be careful with diet and exercise, and may still require medication, but pet parents have lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides than pet-less people.

4. Having a pet is associated with heart health.

The American Heart Association links living with pets, especially dogs, with greater longevity and reduced risk for heart disease. Findings from the National Institutes of Health showed that having pets minimizes the risk of a future heart attack through decreased blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.

The increased level of exercise associated with owning a dog (or a cat!) is also a factor. In one 20 year study, those who never owned a cat were40 percent% more likely to die of a heart attack than those who had.

5. Animals can help you develop immunity to asthma and allergies.

Interestingly, studies have found that animals, specifically cats in the home, can help develop human immunity to asthma and other allergies. Some studies show that babies raised in families that have pets may be less likely to get allergies and asthma. They also have fewer colds and ear infections during their first year than babies living in pet-free homes. So don’t be so worried when your St. Bernard plants a big wet one on your baby’s face — it’s a good thing!

6. Pets can help ward off depression.

These days, if you seek treatment for depression, your therapists may well prescribe, a pet. They can help one deal with and even recover from depression. Those of us with pets know no one who loves you more than your pet. Whatever mood you’re in, whether you got a promotion or a pink slip, your pet is there for you. Pets also help to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression in the chronically ill.

7. Pets encourage you to stay active.

I know people who wouldn’t walk one block for their own health, but their dog’s health motivates them to walk 30 minutes or more each day. And since obesity is the number one problem in pets, you can both use the exercise!

Besides (both of you) getting fit, it’s a great way to get to know your neighbors, or fellow doggy park people. Getting to know people through their pets is less intimidating than a formal introduction, and everybody loves to hear how adorable their buddy is. This can lead to more sustained social visits and even real friendships. This is even more significant for the elderly, who can easily become “invisible.”

Increasing your activity level will also help protect against obesity, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. So exercise with your pet — you'll both benefit!

8. Pets can help children and young teens overcome limitations.

Do you have a child with challenges? Children with ADHD or autism have greatly benefited from a pet in the home. For children with ADHD, whose energy levels can prevent focus, caring for a pet provides focused and specific tasks that the child can be responsible for. The bond that develops promotes self-esteem and introduces calm and security.

Children with autism commonly have sensory issues that complicate their human interactions. Animals seem to have the amazing ability to hold the attention of children with autism, and can assist with life-changing “sensory integration” activities. These activities help children get used to the way something feels against their skin, or how they react to certain smells or sounds.

Both dogs and horses have been used in these activities. Pets also help other children relate to special needs kids, by overcoming barriers others kids may otherwise feel in approaching a child with special needs.

9. Having a pet can change (and even save) the life of a chronically ill person.

Due to their remarkable sense of smell, some studies show that dogs can perform what often seem like miracles, such as detecting cancer, predicting seizures and warning about low blood sugar.

Some dogs can alert their diabetic owner to a dangerous drop in blood glucose levels before it actually happens, which gives the owner sufficient time to eat a proper snack and restore healthy glucose levels. They may be responding to chemical changes in the body that give off a scent.

A Mexican hairless dog, called a Xolo, is known for generating intense body heat. They are trained to be service dogs for people with fibromyalgia and other forms of chronic pain that respond to heat. People get relief just by placing their hurting limbs against the dog's body or lying up next to it.

A "seizure dog" is specially trained to live and work with people who have epilepsy. Some are trained to bark and alert the parents when a child is having a seizure outside or in another room. Some lie next to a person having a seizure to prevent injury (as seen in this demonstration). And some work has been done training dogs to warn before a seizure occurs. This gives the person time to lie down or move away from a dangerous place.

Specially trained dogs can perform tasks that allow people with Parkinson's disease to maintain their independence. They can pick up dropped items or fetch requested ones. They can provide balance support, open and close doors, and turn lights on with their paws. They can also sense when someone with Parkinson's is "freezing" and touch the foot to let the person keep walking.

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