Americans love their pets. A recent survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) shows that more than 57% of U.S. households include one or more animals as pets. Many pet lovers intuitively appreciate that quality of life is enhanced from the relationships with animal companions. Numerous scientific studies performed over the past 25 years confirm that physical and emotion health is improved when life is shared with a loved pet.
“Pet ownership is good for your health both physically and psychologically”, says Connecticut psychologist Herbert Neiburg, author of Pet Loss: A Thoughtful Guide for Adults and Children (HarperCollins). Additionally, the CDC identifies the following health benefits of pet companionship: decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels (indicators of heart disease); and feelings of loneliness.
Having pets reduce stress immensely. A study recently published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine showed pet interaction reduces the amount of stress related hormones. Additionally, these positive effects are experienced faster than the impact of many drugs taken for stress. The decrease in stress hormones occurred after only 5 to 24 minutes of pleasantly interacting with a dog. Other studies have shown that when people are asked to do a stressful task, having their pet with them lowers their stress levels even more than having a supportive friend or their spouse close by.
Pets can help prevent loneliness and isolation. They provide unconditional love, companionship and the opportunity for close connection. Pets encourage playfulness and often revive a sense of fun and adventure in their owners. Physical contact is important to good mental health and loved animal companions provide an opportunity for hugs and touch that might otherwise be missing.
Pets have been found to be especially therapeutic for people with mood and anxiety disorders. Dog ownership has been implicated in helping to alleviate symptoms of depression among terminally ill patients, the elderly, and veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Elders can be particularly at risk of becoming lonely, isolated and depressed. Research looked at people 60 and older, who lived alone. The likelihood that a non-pet owner would be diagnosed as clinically depressed was four times higher than that found in the pet owning people of the same age. There was also evidence that these older pet owners required fewer medical services and were generally more satisfied with their lives.
Children benefit greatly from the relationships with pets. Some studies have suggested that children with pets have higher self-esteem and lower levels of fear than those from pet-free homes. New research in the journal Pediatrics, shows that children who live in a home with a pet during their first year of life are more likely to be healthier. “It’s more support in a growing body of evidence that exposure to pets early in life can stimulate the immune system to do a better job of fighting off infection,” Dr. Danielle Fisher, of St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
Additionally children learn responsibility, compassion, and empathy from having pets. Pets are never critical and don’t give orders. They always love and provide a sense of security. Studies have shown that pets can help calm hyperactive or overly aggressive children.
As wonderful and beneficial as life with pets can be, it is not for everyone. Owning a pet is comforting only for those who love and appreciate domestic animals. If you’re simply not a “pet person”, pet ownership is not going to provide you with any therapeutic benefits or improve your life.
“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”