The Joy (and Health Benefits) of Pet Ownership

by Roba Whiteley, Executive Director, Together Rx Access

One of the rewards of living with a pet is the companionship it provides. A number of studies have also noted that this companionship contributes to happier and healthier individuals and families. This is good news for the millions of Americans who have furry, feathery or scaly friends in their homes. According to the American Pet Products Association, 62 percent of U.S. households own at least one pet − that’s equal to 72.9 million homes.

Here are a few ways that owning a pet can improve physical and mental health.

Pet Ownership

Offers heart-healthy benefits. In a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, people with chronic diseases who owned pets had heart rates that were more adaptable to any number of situations that can affect the body, such as a faster heartbeat during a stressful period. Reduced heart rate adaptability has been linked to a higher risk of death from heart disease. This research is supported by another study presented at the American Stroke Association meeting in 2008 that showed cat owners had a lower risk of dying from a heart attack or other cardiovascular diseases than people who had never owned a cat.

Positively impacts emotional health. Many pet owners become emotionally attached to their animals, which can be good for one’s mental health. Research from a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that pets offer the same emotional benefits as human relationships. The findings showed that owning a pet provided feelings of friendship, love, support, less loneliness and higher self-esteem.

Promotes physical exercise. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), evidence suggests that dog owners may be more physically fit than others. One NIH-funded study evaluated more than 2,000 adults and found that dog owners who walked their dogs on a routine basis were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog.

Increases social activity. While walking the dog can sometimes feel like a chore, several studies have shown that this activity promotes social interaction including conversations with people you met along the way or with other dog owners. Walking a dog, compared to walking alone, can help people feel more connected to others. And according to research, social interaction is not only important to a person’s mental and physical health, but can positively impact longevity.

Helps reduce stress. Having a pet can actually be a stress reliever. In a study from the State University of New York at Buffalo that was published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers looked at the effects of the presence of friends, spouses and pets when conducting tasks that were stressful. They found that compared with human support, people actually experienced less stress when their pets were with them.

Helps fight depression. It is widely believed that having a pet can promote an interest in life, stave off depression and improve one’s mood. A recent study found that men with AIDS were two times more likely to report depression than AIDS-infected men who owned pets. Interestingly, pet ownership also reduces the risk of depression indirectly through increased physical exercise, which can protect against depression.

May make children healthier in early life. A new study in the journal Pediatrics showed that children who lived in a home with a pet during their first year of life were more likely to be healthier, compared with children who didn’t live in a pet-owning household. In particular, children who had a dog during their first year of life had 31 percent fewer respiratory tract infections than children who didn’t live with a dog. The researchers concluded that during the first year of life, contact with pets is important, potentially leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood.

As you can see, the human-animal bond is strong and should not be taken for granted. If you are a pet owner, be thankful for this relationship and its advantages. If you do not own a pet, you might want to consider pet adoption with the understanding that it brings some additional work and responsibility.