If you bunk with a furry friend, you may already know the benefits that such a companionship brings. Or, maybe you’re aware that it’s great, but you aren’t quite sure about the specifics. Or perhaps you are thinking of adopting a pet and you haven’t yet discovered the perks of doing so.
The fact is, having a pet around benefits you in many ways. From your stress levels to your social life, pets contribute to an overall happier lifestyle.
Take a look at these 7 ways pets help contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
If you have a pet and you meet another pet owner, you immediately have something to talk about. If you have a dog, you’ve probably already noticed this. By walking your dog around the neighbourhood, or taking it to the local dog park, you’re bound to meet other dog owners in your area.
A study of over 2,500 people across four cities found that pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighbourhood than non-pet owners. Dog owners were much more likely to think of those they met through their pet as a friend, with 40 percent reporting that they’ve received some sort of social support through them. 
2. Reduces Stress
There’s a reason why pet therapy has been around for so long. It’s because it works. Studies have shown that interacting with a friendly dog quickly reduces the levels of stress hormones.
In fact, the first study that was published on pets and stress – 30 years ago – found that petting a happy dog led to lower blood and muscle tension, along with lower heart rate.
Since then, an array of studies have confirmed that petting or playing with a pet decreases stress hormones, sometimes within minutes. A playdate with an animal friend has also been shown to raise levels of serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin regulates happiness, with low levels being linked to low mood. Dopamine, known as the feel-good-neurotransmitter, contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as part of the reward system.
In another study, stressed adults were asked to pet either a bunny, a turtle, or a plush toy. While the toy had no effect, the adults who were asked to pet the bunny or turtle showed a reduction in nervousness – even if they claimed to not like animals. 
3. Nervousness in Children
If you have a family, you know that the kids can be a handful. Having a pet around can help with that. No, they won’t do the dishes or drive Susie to soccer practice, but they will help your child feel more at ease.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that children who had one or more dogs at home were less likely to be stressed than those who did not. 
Another study found that the presence of dogs improved the behavioral outbursts in children. 
Having a pet around also allows your children to experience the other great benefits laid out in this post. They can play fetch with Fido or enjoy the affection of a cat – things that can get a child’s mind off of their worries.
4. Purpose and Meaning
Pets need to be fed at a certain time. Dogs need to be walked every day. Your furry friend relies on you for these things, and knowing that you provide them with a loving and caring home is meaningful not just to them, but to you as well.
Having this daily purpose is just as valid with pets that aren’t as interactive as a cat or a dog. A 2016 study gave elderly people five crickets in a cage to take care of. After 8 weeks, those with the crickets were found to be less depressed than before, whereas the control group showed no change. 
5. Health and Well-Being
People who own pets tend to be healthier than their pet-less counterparts. Three experiments that were published in the American Psychological Association found that pet owners had higher self-esteem, were more physically fit, less lonely, more conscientious, less preoccupied, more extroverted, and less fearful. 
Pets help us build better routines. From walking the dog to feeding the fish, having something to get you up in the morning helps start the day on a meaningful foot.
One study found that dog owners walked – on average – 22 more minutes a day than those who didn’t have a dog. That may not seem like much, but research has found that walking for half an hour a day can increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen bones, reduce body fat, and improve muscle function. It can also help lower the risk of a range of health issues. [4-5]
Having a dog also results in being out in nature more – in parks or on hikes – which comes with its own list of health benefits. Read them here.
Aside from that, pets tend to live in the moment. Observing their cool, worry-free behavior can help you bring yourself down and relax.
6. Recovery from mental stress
A meta-analysis of 17 academic papers across 9 medical journals concluded that having a pet benefits those with mental stress. They looked at how dogs, cats, hamsters, and fish played a role in mental well-being. The review found that those with pets had a better handle on their emotions and were more distracted from their stresses.
In one of the studies, 60 percent of the participants included their pet in their circle of supportive connections. Roughly half stated that their pet helps them manage their stress with everyday life, giving them a strong sense of worth, meaning, and identity.
Caring for a pet gave the owners a sense of routine and control, providing a feel of security and routine. 
Participants in another study cited their pets as a great help in their reducing their stressors. They stated that their pets provided empathy, built connections that helped them socially, served as family, and strengthened their sense of empowerment. 
It may seem like an odd benefit of pet ownership, but it’s true that those who have pets around tend to keep healthier. One study found that pet ownership decreased the frequency of feeling under the weather. Children ages 3-6 were found to have the lowest risk of allergies. Researchers concluded that this is due to the children developing stronger immune systems from being exposed to pets at an early age. 
Another study from the University of Alberta found that infants living in households with pets were less likely to develop allergies or become overweight due to an increase of certain bacteria in the microbiome. 
But besides the exposure to bacteria that the body then uses to build immunity, all of the other points in this post contribute to better immunity. A lack of social ties has been linked to higher mortality, stress is associated with an increased risk of health issues, and the absence of benefits that a pet provides can take a toll on overall health.
The Bottom Line
Whether you have a pet or are considering a pet, it’s always nice to have a friend to come home to or to take with you on your travels. On top of that, you now know the additional benefits of pet ownership. So, show your pet some gratitude. They’ve been helping you more than you realize!
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References and Resources:
- The Pet Factor – Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support
- 10 Ways Pets Support Mental Health
- Therapy dogs effective in reducing symptoms of ADHD, study finds
- Dog Owners Walk 22 Minutes More Per Day
- Health Benefits of Walking
- Another Breed of “Service” Animals: STARS Study Findings about Pet Ownership and Recovery from Serious Mental Illness
- “Pets: Do They Enhance Our Immunity?”
- Exposure to household furry pets influences the gut microbiota of infants at 3–4 months following various birth scenarios