Owning a pet is beneficial to your health. An early published study found that people were as emotionally close to their dogs as they were to their closest family member, whether that was a spouse or a child. This study, conducted by Sandra Barker, PhD, professor of psychiatry, and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, and her husband, Dr. Randolph Barker, showed that pets are beneficial to our health. That’s great news for those of us who own pets.
Here in the U.S, more than 57 percent of households live with one or more companion animals. We dote on our pets, and in return they provide companionship and unconditional love.
Pets help us avoid loneliness. Dogs, cats, horses, birds, fish, and other pets allow us to focus on them, not on ourselves. Dogs are especially good for interacting with others, since we need to go out and walk them. Having a cat or bird to talk to allows us to interact and care about another living creature. (I know I talk to my cat, Earl Gray, all the time.)
Dogs help us stay in shape physically and mentally. Walking your dog gets you off the sofa. Most people walk their dogs three times a day. When you go out with your dog, you are opening up your world to meeting others. Often people stop dog walkers and talk to them. You are more approachable with a dog at your side. “A study in Japan showed that people who walked dogs were healthier than those who walked alone,” says Barker.
Exercising with a pet can lower your chance of getting osteoporosis. Taking a dog for a walk, riding a horse, and even running around your house with your cat is a good form of exercise. Exercise strengthens bones and can help prevent osteoporosis.
Owning a pet can lower your blood pressure. Preliminary studies conducted by Dr. Barker’s School of Medicine Center for Human-Animal Interaction research team documented that interacting with dogs help us psychologically and physiologically. Patients’ blood pressure was lowered and moods lifted. “We found that spending between 15 and 30 minutes with an Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) dog reduced anxiety and fear in patients hospitalized on an acute psychiatry unit,” she explains. “These patients also believed that AAT helped with their depression as well.”
Having a pet decreases stress. The level of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, is lowered when we pet animals.
Pets lift our moods. The production of serotonin, an important chemical associated with well-being, is increased.
It’s not just dogs. “While our studies have primarily focused on human-canine interaction, others have found benefits from interacting with other species as well,” says Dr. Barker. “I think the key may be less the species and more the attachment people develop with their pets.”
“One study monitored Alzheimer’s patients who ate their meals in front of a fish tank,” she explains. “Those that ate in front of a fish tank gained more weight, which was beneficial since many people with Alzheimer’s don’t eat. Another study showed that fish tanks lower anxiety. That is one reason you see fish tanks in many dentist offices.”
Do your homework before adding a pet to your household. It is important to consider your lifestyle, the cost of pet ownership, and the reasons you want a pet. “For example, if you are seeking a pet companion that will also provide you with a sense of security and protection, you will likely be narrowing your choices to certain types of dogs,” she says.
Talk to pet owners; read about pet breeds; and visit your local no kill shelter. If you want a specific breed, you can find a breed rescue club on line.