The Physical and Emotional Health Benefits of Having a Pet

It’s estimated that 65% of American households own a pet, with cats and dogs being the favorites in the four-legged category. The emotional bond that develops between a pet and “its people” can be so strong that most owners consider their pet to be a member of the family. Various studies and research conducted over the past several years continue to reinforce the finding that having a pet is beneficial to one’s health, both physically and emotionally.

“We do best medically and emotionally when we feel securely attached to another because we’re mammals and that’s the way we’ve evolved,” says psychiatrist Dr. Greg Fricchione, director of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine.

Physical health benefits

Research has shown that owning a dog reduces cardiovascular risk, largely due to an increase in physical activity such as walking and playing with the dog. Regular physical activity can protect you from heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, and more.

One study showed that dog owners were 54% more likely to achieve the recommended level of daily activity. Per the American Heart Association, our goal is 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. But as the AHA points out, doing some form of physical activity is better than nothing. If you can’t consistently reach that goal, just do something.

“The simplest, positive change you can make to effectively improve your heart health is to start walking. It’s enjoyable, free, easy, social and great exercise. A walking program is flexible and boasts high success rates because people can stick with it. It’s easy for walking to become a regular and satisfying part of life.”  – American Heart Association

With the exception of those with an allergic predisposition from a parent, children who live in a home with a dog that spends less than six hours in the house, particularly during the child’s first year of life, tend to suffer from fewer respiratory tract infections. And children living in homes with “inside” dogs tend to be exposed to more different kinds of bacteria, leading to a strengthened immune system which requires fewer antibiotics. Owning a cat has similar but lessened beneficial health effects on babies and children.

Double Duty:  Physical and emotional health benefits

Contact with your pet, particularly petting, and experiencing their love and loyalty can lower blood pressure and reduce stress and anxiety by elevating levels of two “happy hormones” – the nerve transmitters serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is not only responsible for a calm and stable mood, it’s also important for pain control, your sleep cycle, and adequate digestion. Dopamine affects our motivation and focus, resulting in satisfaction and happiness when accomplishing a goal. Lowering blood pressure and reducing stress and anxiety leads to better physical and emotional health.

Therapy dogs, service dogs, and emotional support dogs assist people and enrich their lives in a variety of ways that cover physical, emotional, and mental health needs, depending on the specific training the dog has received.

Emotional health benefits

Our mind-body connection is undeniable, meaning our emotional health and physical health are very important to each other. In addition to the benefits of increased serotonin and dopamine mentioned above, here’s a look at additional emotional pluses of owning a pet.

  • Pet owners tend to be happier and less lonely than those who don’t have pets, experiencing the important sense of being needed and loved.
  • Having a pet can make social interactions easier and more comfortable, whether out-and-about walking the dog (or cat – yes, cats can walk on a leash) or in conversation with other pet owners.
  • Oxytocin is a feel-good, bonding hormone released by the pituitary gland when we (and our pets) closely interact with a loved one. A recent study by a Japanese animal behaviorist proved that the oxytocin levels increased in dog owners when they stared into their pet’s eyes.
  • Research has shown that college students find comfort in their pets during times of stress and/or loneliness.
  • Fibromyalgia patients have shown a decrease in pain and distress and a lightened mood after spending time with a therapy dog.

Bonding with an owner benefits the pet as well

Archeologists believe that dogs were domesticated about 15,000 years ago for use when hunting and also for companionship and protection, and the latest genetic evidence points to a much, much earlier time period. As they evolved, domesticated dogs eventually lost many of the necessary cognitive abilities that would enable them to live successfully in the wild.

“The bond between animals and humans is part of our evolution, and it’s very powerful,” says Dr. Ann Berger, a physician, and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Recently, research conducted at the University of Veterinary Medicine – Vienna showed that adult dogs behave very similarly with their owners as children do toward their parents. The behavior called the “secure base effect”, is that of demonstrating a greater level of emotional ease and security when close to the owner (in the case of a dog) or a parent. When in an unfamiliar situation, dogs, like children, will look for their “person” to serve as a secure and familiar home base, diminishing anxiety.

Cats also develop a close bond with their owners but typically remain a bit more solitary than dogs, having been moved into the “pet” realm through domestication only about 4,000 years ago.

We mentioned earlier the increase in oxytocin levels of dog owners when they looked into their pet’s eyes. As reported in a BBC2 documentary, neuroscientist Dr. Paul Zak measured the oxytocin levels of 10 cats and 10 dogs before and after playing with their owners–the hormone level increased by an average of 57.2% in the dogs and 12% in the cats.

“I was really surprised to discover that dogs produced such high levels of oxytocin… the dog level of 57.2 percent is a very powerful response. It shows these dogs really care about their owners. It was also a nice surprise to discover that cats produce any at all. At least some of the time, cats seem to bond with their owners,” says  Zak. (Dr. Zak has perhaps revealed himself here to not be a cat person.)

Should every household have a pet? No.

While the medical professionals at Rapid Med concur with fact-based evidence that pets have the ability to improve the physical and emotional well-being of their patients, they are very mindful of each patient’s health history and would advise anyone with compromised health to first discuss with their doctor bringing a pet, and the kind of pet, into their home. For example,

  • Reptiles, rodents, and amphibians can spread Salmonella.
  • Dogs and cats can transmit bacteria that cause intestinal problems and antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA that cause infections in different parts of the body.
  • Dogs and cats can also spread parasites, both the treatable kind and the more serious ones like Echinococcus tapeworms.

Households with elderly or very young members as well as pregnant women should also consider discussing with their doctor any potential health risks before adding a pet. One might also consider consulting with a veterinarian.

Most members of the Rapid Med team have one or more beloved pets at home. Ask any one of them about their furry family member and you’re likely to see their face light up. Yes, pets definitely have a positive effect on our overall health.

Dr. Gomez
Dr. John Gomez was born in Venezuela but spent most of his childhood in Texas, his father a Spaniard and mother American. After working a few years as a full time emergency physician in a few hospitals, Dr. Gomez noted and came to dislike the inefficiencies and near total lack of personalization required to practice the best medicine. He developed a perspective that medical care, even when an emergency, should be patient centered and streamlined and it was with this vision that he began Rapid-Med. Dr. Gomez maintains a special interest in ultrasound and sports medicine with emphasis on concussion management. He currently serves on the L.I.S.D. Concussion Oversight Team (COT) as physician advisor and enjoys his close relationship with the local athletic trainers and Flower Mound High School.
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