While most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals, many remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that can also accompany the pleasure of playing with or snuggling up to a furry friend. It’s only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond.
Studies have found that:
- Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.
- People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets.
- Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
- Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
- Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
A pet doesn’t have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and pulse rate. One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that most pets fulfill the basic human need to touch. Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with pets, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time.
Stroking, holding, cuddling, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe us when we’re stressed. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and some pets are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost mood.
How pets can help to make healthy lifestyle changes Adopting healthy lifestyle changes can play an important role in easing symptoms of depression, stress, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety.
Caring for a pet can help with those healthy lifestyle changes in a number of ways:
- Increasing exercise. Exercise doesn’t have to involve boring repetition at a gym. Taking a dog for a walk, riding a horse, or simply chasing a kitten around are fun ways to fit healthy daily exercise into your schedule.
- Providing companionship. Isolation and loneliness can make disorders such as depression even worse. Caring for a living animal can help make you feel needed and wanted, and take the focus away from your problems. Most pet owners talk to their pets, some even use them to work through their troubles.
- Helping meet new people. Pets can be a great social lubricant for their owners. Dog owners frequently stop and talk to each other on walks or in a dog park. Pet owners also meet new people in pet stores, clubs, and training classes.
- Reducing anxiety. The companionship of a dog can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world. Adding structure and routine to your day. Many pets, especially dogs, require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. No matter your mood—depressed, anxious, or stressed—you’ll always have to get out of bed to feed, exercise, and care for your pet.
- Providing sensory stress relief. Touch and movement are two healthy ways to quickly manage stress. This could involve petting a cat or taking a dog for a walk.