Pets Are Good for Your Soul — and Maybe Your Health, Too

Healthy Living

June 18, 2020

Animal companions are good for your mental and physical health. Whether pets have been a part of your family for years or you’re just now thinking about getting your first furry friend, you’ll be glad to know that scientific research confirms the value of having animals in your life.

Good for the Body

Pets keep you moving. Dogs, in particular, love to play and go on walks. Plus, animals need baths, food and other regular care. Investing time and energy in a pet requires you to stay active, and your body benefits from that movement.

In fact, owning a pet seems to be all-around good for your physical health. 

Caring for animals may lead to lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure. Not only could your triglycerides go down, but there could even be immune-system benefits to taking care of an animal.

Having a dog may even help you recover after a health scare. 

In one study, heart attack survivors who owned a dog were a third less likely to return to the hospital or die during the followup period than those without dogs. Stroke survivors experienced similar benefits. Pet ownership seemed to make the greatest difference for study participants who lived alone.

Great for the Mind

Spending time with animals is just as beneficial for your mental health as it is for your physical health.

Based on samples of cortisol levels, it seems that people who engage with animals can handle stress better. And being able to handle stress in the short term mitigates the effects of chronic stress on the body and the mind. 

You’ve likely felt a connection with your pets — or others’ pets, if you don’t have one of your own yet — and that connection can lend comfort and support when you’re down. Animals seem intuitive when it comes to sticking by their humans during hard times.

The companionship of a cat or a dog may help you feel more connected to the world around you, too. Even better? Bonding with an animal may reduce feelings of loneliness or aimlessness.

We should note that owning a pet alone may not have any impact on a clinical mental health issue, like depression. Surprisingly, research suggests pet owners aren’t inherently less likely to be depressed. Studies aren’t conclusive in this area.

Some people find pets helpful for depression. Others not so much.

The takeaway here is that you shouldn’t get a dog or cat just to alleviate depression or in lieu of medication, therapy and other proven interventions. 

That said, if a furry family member brings joy to your life and you can take care of one, go for it.

Pets and Children

Owning a pet can be especially beneficial during the growing-up years.

Having furry friends around may reduce children’s chances of developing allergies. Scientists are still researching the reasons for this, but early exposure to pets’ germs and dander seems to have a protective effect. 

Studies show that babies who live with dogs and cats are less likely to have indoor and outdoor allergies later in life.

As kids get a little older, having an animal companion may lead to greater academic success. For example, reading to a pet has been shown to encourage children’s blossoming literacy skills. Spending time with animals may also help to calm children so they learn how to regulate classroom behaviors.

Pet care can also teach kids responsibility. 

One study evaluated how fish ownership affected teens with diabetes. Those who were responsible for daily and weekly fish care did a better job of keeping up with disease management than those who didn’t care for a pet.

Just remember that it’s important to supervise children and animals together, especially for very young children and babies. 

Kids need to be taught how to interact with their animal friends. They should learn to recognize signs of animal distress and provide alone time for overwhelmed pets as needed.

Seniors and Furry Companions

As you get older, your life may lose some of the structure it once had. An empty nest might leave you feeling lonely, and retirement could do away with your daily routine. Pet ownership can fill both of those voids. 

An animal offers companionship, a sense of purpose, and the structure of a daily feeding and walking schedule.

For older adults who live alone, owning a dog may also provide a sense of protection. A dog’s bark could warn off home invaders and others who seek to prey on vulnerable seniors. You may even sleep better at night knowing that your dog is nearby to watch over you.

Despite all the benefits a pet affords, carefully weigh the pros and cons of pet ownership during your senior years. 

If you suffer from weakness or balance issues, daily walks and other pet care may be too physically demanding. Hiring a dog walker would alleviate some of those concerns, but that might get costly. 

Consider all the factors before taking the plunge.

And for younger pet owners, you might try “sharing” your pet with an older family member or someone living in an assisted living facility or nursing home. These places don’t typically allow residents to keep pets on site, but a weekly visit could be okay. Occasional animal visits might be a safer way to enjoy the comfort of an animal without the full-time responsibility.

Relationship Benefits

If you’re looking for new pals, start with a furry friend. In addition to being a faithful sidekick, a pet can also help you get to know other people.

Animals often serve as icebreakers. 

Neighbors may be more likely to strike up a conversation when you’re walking a dog than when you’re out for a stroll by yourself. While your canine buddies play at the dog park, you can bond with other pet owners over your shared love of animals.

Even kids understand the friendship-building effects that pets can have. In one survey, kids’ best advice for classmates who were struggling socially was to get a pet and chat about it with others.

Whether you’re 5 or 85, a pet may contribute to your mental and physical health. With an animal by your side, you may feel more active, more secure and more connected to the world around you.