A study published by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health finds that pet owners enjoy better health and live longer than their peers who don’t own dogs or cats.
If it’s true that man is a “social animal” and we rely on others to have fulfilling lives, then what better companion than a pup or kitty? A host of new research shows that pets contribute to both mental and physical health in surprising ways. Pets help older people live independently longer; some studies suggest that they relieve them of the burden of being responsible for their animals. Pets also provide companionship, improve mood and outlook, offer physical exercise opportunities for those who can’t walk much anymore.
Some researchers believe that pets can even be a buffer against depression, especially if you live alone. All this adds up to a longer life overall and more healthy years.
How do pets help us? What’s the behind the magic of the animal-human bond? Here’s what we know so far:
1. Pets get us out in nature, walking and exploring again.
Too many people who live alone stay home all day long, which puts them at greater risk for physical health problems. Lesser physical activity can also increase the risk of depression.
“We used to think that to have a meaningful life, we needed to be social, that we needed other people,” says Michael Platt, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University. “But there is this growing body of research showing that being alone is not bad for us.”
Perhaps the best evidence for the link between staying indoors and declining health comes from a 1993 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers found that the odds of dying dropped with each year people spent alone. After ten years, they were 37 percent lower than people who were married or living with others in a household, and after 20, they were 43 percent lower.
2. Pets give us stress relief.
A host of studies point to the benefits of pets on both mental and physical health. One reason: Pets help us de-stress during tough times. They give us a sense of purpose and responsibility.
“You’re not thinking about yourself so much. You’re talking to someone else, even if it’s just through your actions and not verbally,” says Patricia McConnell, author of The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs and Their Effect on Us. “And you can express feelings you don’t usually get an opportunity to express. You can give love that you rarely get to give.”
3. Pets provide companionship and emotional support for their owners.
Having pets has been linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease and death in studies of human populations. Pets also offer a sense of purpose for those who feel isolated or lonely – such as older people living alone. And pets encourage physical activity through walking them, which can help prevent obesity.
4. Pets keep us more active.
According to one UK study, pets can improve fitness levels and help prevent falls. Another study found that those who care for a dog or cat experience a stronger sense of accomplishment than those who use the animal simply as a form of companionship.
A dog can be a great workout partner. A large dog, such as a German shepherd retrieves tennis balls more often than it brings them back to you when you throw them. A medium-size dog such as a Lab might want to play fetch with you but may not retrieve the ball every time. That’s fine if your goal is a physical activity that doesn’t involve a lot of running and jumping.
5. Pets connect us with nature and stress reduction.
If pets can help keep us feeling healthy, let’s talk about what we can do for them.
Pets need grooming and exercise. They also need love and attention, especially if they’re elderly. And sometimes they have physical problems that require professional attention, like arthritis or other health issues.
That gives owners a chance to show their animal the kind of care it needs in these critical situations. The result: Pets can live longer, healthier lives than if they had to care for themselves.
6. Pets give us something to strive for.
If you don’t have time to walk later today, you can now walk your pet. Studies show that we will work harder to earn our animals’ love and affection than other humans.
“Pets provide an opportunity for people with disabilities or people who are depressed to gain some sense of self-worth,” says McConnell. “They make the lives of their owners more meaningful.”
7. Pets help us get out of our comfort zone.
A University of Georgia study found that people who own pets are more likely to take in new experiences than people who don’t have dogs or cats. They’re also more willing to take on activities that they might otherwise avoid, like hiking, cross-country skiing, or snowshoeing.
8. Pets make us feel less lonely.
In a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that animal-assisted therapy effectively reduces feelings of depression and loneliness among older adults at risk for loneliness.
“If you can add something to your life that is very rewarding, it makes you feel better,” says Robert Bevier, associate professor of gerontology at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. “You’re not as likely to become depressed. It helps you not feel so isolated.
9. Pets make us feel alive and positive.
When we’re feeling down, pets can provide emotional support. Sometimes it’s the simple act of holding an animal that changes our outlook on life for the better. “There may be a time when some people are depressed, and it’s hard to acknowledge their feelings,” says Frank. “But with a pet, they’re constantly looking to connect with you, constantly wanting affection.”
10. Pets help prevent alcohol abuse.
In a study published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory, researchers at the University of Buffalo found that college students who received a dog for graduation were less likely to abuse alcohol.
“Having an animal to care for could make students feel more stable, responsible, and less lonely,” said Linda Mahoney, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology. “Just having an animal in their lives may help prevent some negative consequences associated with students being away from home.”
11. Pets help distract us from our troubles.
“A pet is a distraction,” Frank says. “It takes your attention away from the problems in life and puts it on what’s going on with your pet.”
12. Pets give us something to fall back on when we’re down.
If you have an animal, you can turn to it for comfort. “A dog or cat gives you something to lean back against or sit against and put your arms around,” says McConnell. “Some people are so lonely that they need this kind of emotional support.”
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that older adults living alone who owned pets were less likely to suffer from depression than those who did not. “People do better when they have pets,” says lead researcher Patricia Frank. “Pets provide social support, but they also offer comfort that humans just cannot. Pet owners are more likely to talk about their feelings.”
13. Pets help boost the immune system.
A study published in the journal Health Psychology found that college-age women who lived with pets had stronger immune systems than those who didn’t. The researchers believe that pets can lessen stress by providing comfort and bolstering the body’s defenses.
14. Pets are in sync with their owners’ emotions.
While we may have to take medication every day to quell our depression, pets can be effective alternatives for some people dealing with mild depression, according to Frank. “There’s something very soothing about waking up and seeing a pet or interacting with it,” she says.
15. Pets reduce stress.
“For women, pets are a great way to get away from stress,” says Frank. “I’ve seen women who have their businesses and become very stressed about work, only to feel better when they go home to see their pets.”
16. Pets inhibit depression and enhance self-esteem.
“We’re now learning that if you take care of a pet, you get an endorphin rush and feel better about yourself,” says Frank. “If you’re depressed, the endorphins make you feel better, and if you’ve got high self-esteem, you’re not as depressed.”
17. Pets help a person with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
According to McConnell, having a pet lets a person with Alzheimer’s maintain their identity and feel needed. “They can still be in control and feel like they’re providing care,” she says. “They also can enjoy the unconditional love and companionship of their pets.”
18. Pets can help you recover from a serious illness.
A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that pets helped people overcome exhaustion, depression, and loneliness after an illness or surgery.
19. Pet ownership is correlated with longer life spans.
Dog owners live longer, as supported by the study published in the journal “Vet Record.” Of the 936,745 dog owners participating in a large study of US adults, those who owned dogs had a lower risk of early death and heart attack than non-dog owners.
“The association between dog ownership and mortality was stronger among middle-aged men than among women,” said Ayako Hayashi, lead author of the study from Hokkaido University in Japan. “In contrast, cat owners did not seem to have a lower risk of early death or heart disease. This finding is consistent with previous research showing no health benefits of cat ownership.”
20. Pets are good listeners who don’t interrupt.
One study found that people who confided in a dog could verbalize deeper thoughts than they would reveal to a human listener. Dogs can be especially important for those who don’t get out much or have many social contacts. A lot of people don’t have someone they can talk to about their lives.