If your home is like 68 percent of households in the United States, you own a pet. About 36.5 percent of households have a dog, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA), while just over 30 percent of U.S. households have a cat. Most of people in these households do not realize it, but they are getting health benefits simply by owning a pet.
Pets keep people connected and on the move. This is especially important for people who are aged 50 and up, as adults tend to become more sedentary as they grow older. Older adults are also at a higher risk for certain medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol levels, heart disease, sedentary lifestyle, and sedentary isolation. Owning a pet can help the older adult manage some of these age-related conditions. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that pet ownership can:
Pet ownership is also important for households with kids, as it teaches children about responsibilities and benefits of having a furry, feathered or finned friend.
The National Center for Health Research cites a number of studies that demonstrate the benefits of pet ownership on human health. These studies show that pet owners have healthier hearts, take fewer sick days, visit the doctor less often, exercise more, and are less depressed. The research also suggests that pet companionship can positively affect allergies and asthma, and can even improve social support and social interactions with other people.
The results of a 2002 study of 240 married couples found that owning a companion animal could improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and maintaining a good pulse during stressful situations. In that study, the researchers compared changes in blood pressure and pulse among pet owners and those who did not own pets when the participants performed a timed math task.
The scientists found that dog or cat owners had lower resting heart rates and blood pressures at the beginning of the experiment as compared with those who did not own pets. Pet owners were also less likely to experience spikes in their blood pressure and pulse during the test. Their blood pressure and heart rate also returned to normal after the math test than did non-pet owners. They also made fewer math errors when their dogs or cats were in the room. Lowering blood pressure and pulse during stressful times, and a quick return to normal blood pressure and heart rate, can lower the risk of stress and heart disease.
Another study found that having your pup in the room lowers elevated blood pressure due to stress better than taking a certain blood pressure drug, known as an ACE inhibitor. While you should always take your blood pressure medication as prescribed by a doctor, it is good to know that owning a dog can keep your blood pressure in check during stressful situations.
Other research also shows that simply petting a dog or cat can help lower your blood pressure and your cholesterol.
Pets can make you feel more relaxed and help reduce your stress. While social support from friends and family has similar benefits, relationships with people frequently cause stress. Pets are less likely to cause this type of anxiety.
Pet ownership can reduce trips to the doctor’s office. In a large German study, researchers collected pet ownership information from more than 9,000 people at two different times, once in 1996 and again in 2001. They found that the participants who had a pet in both 1996 and 2001 had the fewest visits to the doctor, followed by those who had acquired a dog, cat, fish, bird or other pet in 2001. Participants who did not have a pet in 1996 or 2001 visited the doctor most often.
Owning an animal companion may improve the lives of older people. One study showed that older adults who had a dog or cat were better at performing activities of daily living, such as preparing meals and getting dressed, than were those who did not have an animal companion. While owning a pet did not seem to have much of an effect on the psychological health of the participants, the authors of the study suggested that taking care of a pet gives an older adult a sense of purpose and responsibility that improves their overall quality of life.
Having an animal companion can encourage social interactions with people, and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Walking with a dog increases social interaction, particularly with strangers, as compared with walking without a pooch.
Pet ownership can improve health for kids too. Exposure to companion animals may ease anxiety in children. In one study, researchers measured blood pressure, pulse and signs of behavioral distress in healthy kids ages 3 to 6 years, during two different doctor visits to undergo routine physicals. A dog, which the child did not know, was present during one visit but not during the other visit. The researchers found the children had lower blood pressure and heart rates along with less behavioral distress when the dog was present.
There you have it. If you want better health, less stress and fewer trips to the doctor, consider getting a pet. It does not seem to matter if you choose a dog, cat, hamster, bird, ferret or fish, simply having an animal companion can support good health and improve the quality of your life – not to mention the life of the pet you adopt.