If you have a pet, whether your pet is a cat, a dog or an aquarium with fish, you are well aware of the calming effect pets have on your well-being. But what you may be less aware of is the multiple benefits pets have on your overall health, from helping to fight off depression and obesity to warding off diseases and easing anxiety. There is a tangible sense of warmth in a house with animals but there is a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to the advantages of having a pet.
If you come home to your dog, then you know what unconditional love feels like. That level of admiration and excitement is a mood enhancer at the best and worst of times. Most people have a genuine love for their pets and consider them a member of the family. To your pet, you are their world. For that reason, pets teach you a lot about what it means to have a meaningful relationship but they also become a significant focus in your life, diverting the spotlight from more stressful worries. Most cats and dogs have a very strong bond with the people upon whom they rely for food, shelter and love. This is why your pets are usually very connected to your emotional state of mind.
Your body will experience physical changes when interacting with a cat or a dog, a horse, or when watching fish swim, as the stress hormone (cortisol) lowers and the chemical responsible for happiness in the brain (serotonin) increases. Pets are directly responsible for lowered anxiety and a more balanced state of mind.
Pets are natural mood enhancers. Their energy shows us what it means to be positive, which, even when feigned in response to your pet, often times puts you in a sincerely good mood. This is part of the reason why pets are wonderful when you are sick, because that positive state of mind contributes to healing.
Dogs and cats in particular teach you the true meaning of what it is to be empathetic. Because you must learn to understand how your animals feel before you are able to communicate with them, this forces you to focus on your pet before you focus on yourself, which in turn teaches empathy in the truest sense. This is also an exercise in patience! Pets also teach you compassion, like in empathy, by focusing attention away from yourself, which studies have shown can have multiple benefits, such as contribute to more meaningful interactions with people, reduce levels of inflammation, and can lengthen your life!
The fact that pets improve your emotional state contributes to your cardiovascular health in more ways than you might think. Not only do animals have a calming effect, helping to ward off stress and anxiety, which aids in overall heart health, but they have been proven to physically lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and moderate the imbalance caused by diabetes, all because of the way in which they improve our emotional state of mind.
Research has shown that people who have cats are less likely to have a stroke than those who do not. This is due in part to the effect that pets have on circulation but also because cats have a significantly more calming effect than other animals.
Having a horse or a dog forces you to exercise, regardless of the time of year, whether that is going for rides or walks, running with your dog or playing catch. Even playing with toys inside the house, with cats and/or dogs, helps to keep you active and is great for exercising your pet’s brain. Studies have shown that people who have a pet routinely get more exercise than those who do not have pets. If you haven’t already, make your pet an exercise buddy – it’s the key to healthy living for you both.
Knowing than an animal depends on you for its wellbeing has far-reaching effects on your mental health. The level of responsibility for a pet has been shown to help motivate those suffering from mental illness, acknowledging that another living being needs you in their life.
There is a reason some dogs are classified as “therapy dogs”. Once treatment for an illness or disease begins, including mental illnesses, having an animal sometimes becomes a part of the recovery process, as those who have interactions with animals report improved psychological well-being, improved oxygen levels and shorter recovery times. For some patients, this is as simple as having company during a difficult time. These “therapy” animals prevent feelings of isolation during recovery and help to motivate patients to get better. Petting an animal has an instrumental calming effect and helps to combat stress, anxiety and feelings associated with depression, as does playing with and caring for animals.
Pets are the best listeners. An animal will listen to you talk for as long as you need them to, without interruption or argument, and sometimes all you needed was to verbalize your thoughts and get them out of your head. Having a pet helps you to feel less lonely at times when you may feel like no one understands you or that you have no one on your side. No one loves you more unconditionally than your pet. People with animals often gravitate toward others with similar animals, especially people with dogs who pass each other on walks or at the park and end up in conversation about their pets. Part of keeping a healthy mind is remaining engaged in an active lifestyle, which includes social engagement with others. Pets contribute significantly toward this.
Scent Detection & Disease Prevention
For cats and dogs, scent is their primary sense. Your pet’s sense of smell is so strong that they can easily detect chemicals in your body and on your breath that are indicative of stress, anxiety, fear and illness. This awareness can be magnified if you are hiding feelings of fear and/or anxiety as your pet can detect those as well. Studies have shown that dogs are being used in the medical field to detect early signs of diseases such as cancer and epilepsy that may otherwise remain undetected for a period of time, as well as detect chemical changes in patients with diabetes, alerting them to a sudden drop in their level of blood glucose. In some cases, this has meant the difference between life and death. Researchers have suggested that having a pet actually changes your immune system and decreases sensitivity to allergens, making you less vulnerable to immune system-related diseases.
Just like dogs are trained to sniff out prohibited items at airports and important public events, they are also now being used to sniff out peanut products in areas where contact with nuts could cause those who are allergic to suffer a life-threatening reaction. And you have likely heard stories of how pets have saved their owners from fire, smoke and weather related disasters, including earthquakes. Their nose always knows!
If you sleep with your pet then you know how warm their bodies are, especially when they are cuddled under a blanket next to you. The warming benefits from your pet can be used to your health’s advantage, helping to alleviate back pain, muscle ache, the effects of fibromyalgia and even menstrual cramps. Heat is often prescribed for debilitating pain and what better way to keep your body warm than to cuddle up with your pet?
Playing with your pet is also a great way to combat the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Not only do pets offer a distraction from the pain but they also enforce movements such as going for a walk, playing with a Frisbee or a feather wand, all of which help to combat this condition.
The above point shows some of the ways in which pets contribute to improved sleep (provided they are not competing for your side of the bed!). But in addition to keeping us warm and cozy, studies have shown that repeatedly petting your pet can help you to get to sleep as you physically transfer your stress out of your mind and body, through the calming action of petting. And last but not least, they will keep you company if you otherwise sleep alone.
Benefits for Children
Pets are completely dependent on humans for their care and well-being. When you engage a child in the care of family pets from a young age, pets then not only hold a more significant position within the family unit but they also are a means for teaching your children what it means to have the utmost responsibility, for a living being. Dogs in particular take that a step further when you teach your child what it means to be a responsible dog guardian, with regards to obeying leash laws, safely introducing your dog to another dog, picking up after your dog, etc.
Studies have shown that pets have mental, cognitive, emotional and physical advantages for children. Pets are sometimes a child’s first friend and certainly a most loyal one at that, teaching a child about empathy and the value of positive, meaningful relationships. In this manner, they also help children to combat the anxieties that are a part of growing up. Children with autism are sometimes better able to interact with a pet than with other children, which in turn can result in a greater use of language and social interaction. Pets have also been used to help autistic children with sense integration, helping them get used to how something feels against their skin or helping with reactions to smells and sounds. And because pets need to remain active, they are great for helping to keep children active too, getting them outside into the fresh air to walk and play.
Research shows that children who are in contact with cats and dogs during their early years of life have higher levels of microbes associated with lower risk of respiratory illnesses, ear infections, less likely to require antibiotics and have a stronger immunity against allergies. Children in families with pets are also less likely to develop asthma than those who do not have pets. This is especially true for children who live on a farm.
Many diseases that affect humans can also affect pets. While you are more likely to ignore your own health before that of your pet, learning about what can affect the health of your pet can inspire you to learn about your own health issues as well. Pets can inspire you to get regular check-ups with your doctor, whether that is because you are more cognizant of your health as you maintain theirs or because you want to remain healthy for their sake, as you would for your child. A recent on-line poll found that one in three people who smoke said that their pet inspired them to quit smoking, knowing that their smoking was detrimental to the health of their pet.
Pets can motivate you to recover after an accident, such as a serious fall or car accident, through your desire to return to your normal, active interactions with your fury family member. Pets also inspire us to keep fit by engaging us in their play and exercise. Pets are great motivators for a healthier lifestyle!