Man’s Best Friend: Pets & Our Health

By: Anna Kiesewetter

For over 27,000 years, dogs have been man’s best friend. It all began with the domestication of the Siberian wolf many millennia ago. Our ancestors tamed these wolves because they believed that they could have a mutualistic relationship with one another. As a result of this, we now have the lovable furry companions we know and love. Today, about 85 million families in the United States alone own pets, ranging from cats and hamsters to exotic birds and hedgehogs. However, our pets might not just provide us with a sense of companionship. Scientists have recently begun to discover the benefits that owning a pet can have on our physical and mental health.

Owning a pet can have considerable effects on one’s physical health. Those who own pets have been found to have substantially better cardiovascular health than their petless colleagues. For instance, several studies have reported that pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than the average person. Lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease. Furthermore, heart attack patients with pets have been shown to survive longer than those without. It appears that senior citizens in particular benefit the most from this. According to a study from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, pet owners over the age 65 make 30% fewer visits to doctors than non-pet owners.

Apart from physical health, owning a pet has been shown to have even greater benefits to an individual’s mental health and overall satisfaction with life. A 2011 Cats Protection survey found that 87% of people who owned a cat felt that it had a positive impact on their wellbeing. Similarly, 76% believed that owning a cat helped diminish the negative effects of their daily stressors. Owning a pet can even help someone combat depression. Pets such as dogs can motivate their owners to get out of the house and exercise, which can be extremely beneficial for those with depression. Furthermore, caring for an animal lends each day a sense of purpose, which goes a long way in combating depression. This is likely the reason why pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without a pet.

Caring for a pet can also assuage feelings of loneliness. This is due to a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, pets offer a sense of security and friendship to their owners. Friendship is invaluable when it comes to coping with feelings of loneliness. Additionally, a pet’s unconditional love can increase a person’s self-confidence. Low self-confidence can result in feelings of self-hatred and depression, so it’s very important to cultivate a strong sense of confidence. The love and affection we receive from animals is one of the best ways to do just that. Finally, petting animals not only satisfies the basic human need for touch, but can also elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters that signal our bodies to relax. We often forget that our mental health is linked to our neurological health, and so it’s incredibly important that we make sure to take care of our neurological health.

Perhaps the most profound effect of owning a pet is the alleviation of stress, anxiety, and other similar conditions. Pet owners have been found to have a lower blood pressure during stressful situations than non-pet owners. Current studies suggest that this is due to the fact that animals can act as stress buffers, softening outbursts resulting from conditions such as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). For children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), caring for a pet can help teach planning skills and responsibility. Additionally, exercising with a pet not only releases ADHD patients’ excess energy and stress, but can also increase oxygen-filled blood flow to the brain, which can improve concentration. For those with autism, working with animals is a calming experience, as well as helpful with sensory integration. By working with animals, autistic children learn to identify how stimuli feel, smell, and sound. Caring for animals can even improve an autistic child’s ability to connect socially.

That being said, the grief resulting from the loss of a pet has the potential to adversely affect one’s mental health. Experiencing the death of a beloved animal companion can cause stages of grief similar to those one would experience when mourning the death of a human friend. It can take a considerable amount of time to cope, which can even exacerbate existing mental health conditions. For example, a study conducted on a group of individuals who had recently lost a pet found that the prevalence of symptoms of depression was three times greater in this group than that in the normal population.

Ultimately, owning a pet is a huge responsibility, providing both the benefits and drawbacks of caring for a personal best friend. The choice to adopt one is often life-altering and can greatly improve a person’s physical and mental health.


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What Did You Learn?


1. How can owning a pet improve one’s physical health?

Active pets, such as dogs, require daily exercise, motivating their owners to get out of the house and move their bodies. Increased exercise helps circulate oxygen-rich blood to the brain, improving concentration, as well as aiding cardiovascular health. Additionally, owning a pet has been linked to reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which is conducive to a lowered risk of heart disease.

2. What are the potential drawbacks of owning a pet on a person’s mental health?

As with any long-term relationship with another being, the potential loss of a pet can cause grief and exacerbate one’s depression. In fact, after the death of a pet, some owners require therapy or counseling to cope with their loss. It is a large responsibility to care for another life, and someone who is not ready to engage in a level of commitment may not be fit to handle the joys and sadnesses of owning a pet. It’s important to make sure you know you’re ready to own a pet before you get one. Remember, you can’t take care of another living thing until you can take care of yourself.

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