The Surprising Benefits of Pets

Whether they’re furry, feathered or scaly, the non-human members of your family help you in more ways than you know—especially when it comes to your health

Anna-Kaisa Walker Updated: May 12, 2023 15:36:59 IST
The Surprising Benefits of Pets Photo by Jaime Hogge

1. They Keep You Active

If you have a dog, chances are you’re walking it at least 30 minutes a day, and likely more—an activity that goes a long way towards keeping you fit.

In fact, a 2017 British study published in the journal BMC Public Health found that, on average, walking a dog added an extra 2,700 steps to a person’s daily total, about 20 more minutes of physical activity per day than people who don’t own dogs. What’s more, most of that walking was done at a ‘moderate cadence’—enough to get your heart pumping but still carry on a conversation—the mini-mum intensity the UK’s National Health Service recommends adults get for 2.5 hours a week.

Walking your pooch for that amount of time could even prolong your life. Getting 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week reduces your risk of heart disease by up to 15 per cent, cuts your chances of developing breast, stomach, kidney and other cancers by up to 20 per cent, and helps prevent and manage type 2 diabetes.

And, as a bonus, more exercise during the day also seems to set the stage for better nights. According to a survey of 6,500 retired civil servants conducted a decade ago, dog owners were more likely to report having an easier time falling asleep at night than those who didn’t own dogs.

2. They Boost Your Immune System

According to the so-called hygiene hypothesis, proposed in the late 1980s, growing up indoors in disinfected spaces later causes our bodies to over-react to harmless substances, making us more prone to allergies and asthma. Dogs and cats, with their dirty paws, copious dander and love for licking us, introduce more microbial diversity that habituates our immune systems.

Of course, pets can bring you into contact with dangerous bacteria. But research shows that children who live with pets from birth have lower rates of allergies and asthma, and the more animals, the greater the protection. Kids with four or more cats or dogs had half the rate of allergies as non-pet owners.

Even in adulthood, there’s new evidence to suggest pets may have a positive effect on our guts—with links to both mental and physical health. Researchers at the University of Arizona are studying whether the sharing of bacteria between dogs and their owners can alter our microbiome—the community of microorganisms inside our bodies—and non change our brain chemistry, alleviating major depression.

“We were intrigued by previous research that found that dogs and humans share gut bacteria just by living in the same home, and you get the same amount from your dog as you do from your spouse,” says Dieter Steklis, co-director of the Human-Animal Interaction Research Initiative.

3. They Lower Your Risk of a Fatal Heart Attack

Researchers at the University of Minnesota tracked 4,000 people—most of them for more than a decade—and found that cat owners had a 30 per cent lower risk of dying of a heart attack.

Given you don’t need to take a cat for walks, what accounts for the lower risk? The researchers hypothesized—and most cat owners would agree—that cats’ inherently unbothered nature has a calming effect. And research has shown that, like exercise, spending time with a pet lowers stress, an important contributor to heart disease.

In fact, students at Washington State University showed significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva after spending just 10 minutes petting a cat or dog. Other studies have shown that human–animal interaction lowers your blood pressure and releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, which reduces anxiety and pain and improves cardiovascular function.

4. They Help You Manage a Chronic Condition

With their clockwork needs for feeding, walks, affection and play, animals have expectations of their owners—and that can be a good thing for chronic disease sufferers of all types.

The benefits of animals in healthcare were first noted by Florence Nightingale in 1860, when she wrote that a pet tortoise named Jimmy provided great comfort to wounded soldiers in hospital. In the 1960s, child psychologist Boris Levinson observed that a withdrawn, non-verbal child suddenly began communicating when Levinson’s dog, Jingles, was in the room. The field of ‘pet therapy’ was born, and visits from trained therapy animals are now commonplace in hospitals and nursing homes.

But outside of institutional settings, pets can help people on an ongoing basis with the daily management of long-term health conditions. According to University of Michigan research scientist Mary Janevic, this is especially true of chronic pain sufferers looking for non-pharmacological interventions.

In 2019, Janevic led a small study of older adults with arthritis, lower back pain and other conditions, and found that pets not only helped improve mood, but also compelled their owners to stick to routines that alleviated their pain in the long run. These included daily walks, feeding, cleaning, affection and play.

In addition to that, Janevic points out that pets’ greatest superpower against chronic suffering is their talent for drawing all the attention and focus. “If you’re distracted from the pain, you perceive less pain, and therefore you are in less pain,” she explains. Kelly Redmon, a therapist based in the US state of Virginia who suffers from complex regional pain syndrome, says fostering guinea pigs for a local rescue group has helped her cope with what is an often excruciating condition.

“When I care for my animals, I have to stay present even through a flare-up,” she says. “I can’t get caught in a spiral of wondering, ‘Will the pain last forever?’ ”Sometimes, Redmon adds, her pets provide vicarious joy. “When I watch my guinea pigs run around their little playpen through all the tunnels, I can see that it makes them happy, and that makes me happy, too.”

5. They Reduce Inflammation

Inflammation is how your body responds to a perceived injury or infection, and normally it’s a good thing—when a cut becomes red and swollen, for example, it’s because an army of white blood cells are swarming in to fight off harmful bacteria. But sometimes your immune system doesn’t switch off after the fight is over, and when inflammation becomes chronic, it can silently lay the groundwork for killer diseases like diabetes, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In a small preliminary trial, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison assigned foster dogs from a local humane society to a group of volunteers aged 50 to 80.

After three months, some blood tests showed a drop of up to 30 per cent in markers of inflammation, including interleukin-6 (IL-6), which has been linked to many inflammatory diseases, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia, heart disease and cancer. “Some of the subjects also reported that they felt an increase in their sense of well-being and improved social function,” says psychiatrist and study director Charles Raison.

“We don’t know for sure whether there was an association between IL-6 levels and mental health, but it may work as a virtuous cycle—having a dog makes you feel better, which makes inflammation drop, and lower levels of inflammation make you happier.”

6. They Improve Your Mental Health

When 40-year-old Sharmeen Abeysinghe left her Toronto job as an early childhood educator in 2019, she was suffering from depression and burnout. “There were some days when I’d forget to eat,” she says. Her doctor prescribed antidepressants, and she began to feel functional again. Then came the pandemic and multiple lockdowns, causing more stress. Fortunately, Abeyasinghe and her husband, who have two children, decided to adopt a nine-month-old terrier-lab mix named Suki.

“We thought having a dog would give us something to do while we’re at home, and she has just transformed our lives,” Abeysinghe says. “I feel so lifted by her joy, energy and unconditional love. I’ve even told my doctor I don’t think I need mymedication anymore.

”A number of studies have shown that pet ownership is beneficial for people with depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia and other long-term mental health conditions. Pet owners themselves report that their animal pals provide unconditional emotional support, foster self-acceptance, help them form social bonds, and serve as distractions from upsetting symptoms or episodes.

Your pet might even be a valuable mindfulness coach. “If I’m awake with insomnia at night, my bunny Gus will sit by me and let me stroke him,” says Hina Low, a 30-year-old banking assistant in Toronto who suffers from bipolar disorder. “It’s like a meditation exercise. I focus on his soft fur, the warmth of his body and the feeling of his breathing.”

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