Most pet owners are quick to explain that their pets bring them joy and that their bonds with their pets are extremely important to them. But are companion animals bringing more than just joy to their owners? Could pets actually be improving the health of the humans that they belong to?
It’s well known that pets can carry certain health hazards to humans. Dog bites are a concern, especially in households with small children. Pregnant women are cautioned against emptying cat litter boxes. Some people have allergies to pet dander and fur. But while these are legitimate health concerns, to focus only on them ignores the potential that companion animals have to improve the health of the humans who adopt them. As it turns out, there are a number of ways in which companion animals can improve health and quality of life for their owners.
How Companion Animals Affect Physical Health
One obvious way that pets contribute to the physical health of their owners is by helping their owners get exercise. Often, this is a mutually beneficial activity. Dogs and cats are some of the most common household pets, and both need regular exercise in order to stay healthy themselves. Usually, this requires some exercise on the part of the owner as well – for example, by taking the pet for a daily walk. People who keep horses as pets improve their balance and build muscle by riding their horses regularly. Even pets that aren’t normally thought of as especially active pets, like reptiles and rodents, can often be leash-trained and walked, or at least engage in some physical play with their owners. And animal care can require physical activity even if it’s not something that’s done with the animal in question. For example, assembling, cleaning, or moving a large fish tank is an activity that requires physical exertion, even if the fish themselves aren’t exercising with their owners.
Of course, while pets may encourage their owners to exercise more, pet owners still have to make an active choice to engage in physical activity. But pets can have an effect on the physical health of their owners completely on their own as well. The presence of a dog, for example, has been shown to decrease blood pressure, pulse rate, and muscle tension. A companion animal can actually cause the human body to relax. This can have a positive effect on a number of stress-related health conditions. High blood pressure damages your heart and can lead to heart attacks and strokes, so if having your pet nearby reduces your blood pressure, your pet’s presence may be decreasing your risk of heart attack or stroke – two potentially fatal health conditions.
Interacting with animals also tends to increase your body’s production of endorphins and dopamine. This means that for people who are recovering from an injury or dealing with chronic pain, companion animals could reduce their pain levels and potentially, their dependence on pain medications as well.
Companion animals may also provide their human companions with the motivation they need to take better care of themselves. It can often be difficult to make healthy choices, and many mental and physical health conditions can further discourage people from proactively working toward better health. But people who have a pet that is dependent on them for care may be motivated to take better care of themselves so that they can continue to take good care of their pet.
How Animals Affect Mental Health
Companion animals can also have a positive effect on their owners’ mental health. In fact, it’s not uncommon for therapists and counselors to recommend pet therapy or companion and support animals to their clients.
A companion animal can help alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness in people suffering from conditions like depression. After all, when your pet is in the room, you’re no longer alone. Many people consider their pets to be members of the family. Owners can talk to their pets, share secret thoughts without fear of judgment, and receive comfort from their pet. Many types of pets can sense when their owners are unhappy or distressed and will actively try to comfort them. Pets are also nonjudgmental, which means that people who fear they’re being judged harshly or held to standards they can’t meet in order to receive love and comfort from the humans in their lives can find unconditional affection in the company of their pets.
Pets may also help owners struggling with isolation make social connections with other humans. Pet ownership is a commonality through which people can connect and bond. This can further reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Companion animals can also improve their owners’ moods and help bring about a more positive mental state. The same endorphin and dopamine release that can reduce pain levels in humans can also contribute to an uplifted mood. Similarly, by reducing the pulse rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension in humans, pets can help ease feelings of anxiety that may be interfering with one’s quality of life. If a human owner feels more relaxed and confident with their pet by their side, they may be better able to navigate situations that cause anxiety. For example, people who experience anxiety about talking on the phone may find that making phone calls is less stressful if they’re petting their cat while they talk. In this way, companion animals can help their owners get past their fears.
If you’re considering a companion animal, choosing the right animal for you is an important part of the process. Consider how much time, money, and space you have in your home to devote to a pet. People who work long hours may do better with a cat than a dog, for example. People living in small apartments may be better equipped to handle a hamster, rather than a large dog that needs room to roam. A compatible companion animal that fits into your lifestyle can have a noticeable positive impact on your physical and mental health.