I’ll admit it, I’ve been called the “Crazy Dog Lady” more than once. (Like that’s a bad thing…) With three large dogs and two cats, in my house, you’ll find fur on every surface, nose prints on the windows, and pet toys scattered in nearly every room. And whether it’s blazing hot, freezing cold, or anywhere in between, I’m outside with my dogs every day to make sure they get in their daily constitutional and to check their pee-mail.
At times, I think I really am crazy with the constant chaos of having a tribe of pets underfoot, on the sofa, and barking and meowing through conference calls. (Please don’t tell my husband. He told me “no more puppies.”) Yet they’re my constant companions and best friends—with at least one almost always in range for a quick pet or ear scratch. And I wouldn’t change any of one of them for anything. (Well, maybe Bruce. Bruce—the best-trained, least well-behaved critter in the crew—I might try to change if I could.)
Yet, it turns out that not only are our pets part of the family and cherished for the joy and love they bring, the health benefits of having a pet is even more surprising. Here’s how…
6 Health Benefits of Having a Pet
It takes work to own a pet: feeding, grooming, walking, vacuuming all that fur, cleaning windows…it’s exhausting just thinking about it. Pets demand time, effort, and energy. Is it really worth it to add these extra activities into our already busy lives?
When it comes to managing stress and building resilience, science seems to indicate the answer is yes. For instance, playing with or petting an animal can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boost levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin.
Did you know pets have been shown to lower blood pressure (often used to measure stress) and muscle tension merely by offering a peaceful presence? While researchers first saw these effects when owners pet their companions, it turns out you don’t even have to touch your pet. Simply watching animals play or fish swim are also effective.
In addition to lower blood pressure, research has shown an additional health benefit of having a pet can be a significantly lower heart rate, another indicator of stress reduction. Other research has indicated that even when people are asked to perform stressful tasks (like challenging math problems), their pets decreased their reactivity to the stress, demonstrating less tension and anxiety.
Reduced Feelings of Loneliness and Depression
Who else in your life provides unconditional love and acceptance, without judgement? When we’re feeling sad, moody, grumpy, or just out of sorts, our human companions may be put off by a display of too many emotions. Our furry friends, on the other hand, tend to not only tolerate our moods, they can be great listeners, providing us “no judgement zones” where we can share our feelings or shed a tear—often offering up a soft cuddle for comfort.
In addition, if a you’re feeling a little blue or even questioning the real meaning of life, one of the biggest benefits of having a pet is that they are a helpful key to break free from the moody blues or provide much-needed meaning. After all, you’re responsible for at least one other living being, and that’s a huge reason to get off the couch and on with life—or at least out for a walk, which has shown numerous benefits as well for improving mood.
Plus, pets tend to encourage friendly social interactions with other people. People out with their pets often stop to say hello, and pets can be great conversation starters. If your dog is dog-friendly, a dog park can be a great way to meet new people—and more four-legged friends.
Increased Activity Levels
This one should come as no surprise: pet owners—especially dog owners—tend to be more active and get more exercise. When you have a “buddy” that needs to go outside regularly, you’re likely to get out more often as well. And let’s face it, it’s good for our dogs and us to spend time outdoors and move more daily (an awesome benefits of having a pet).
Many of our little buddies have a great deal of pent-up energy, making it better for everyone if they get out a bit to sniff, saunter, and enjoy some sunshine (or clouds—they don’t typically care about the weather).
And get this, there’s research that demonstrates that walking with your dog may be even better for you than walking with another person. For instance, regular dog walkers typically exercise vigorously, which may be a more time-efficient way to reap the health benefits of exercise. Plus, you don’t need a gym membership, and unlike a human walking partner, your canine companion won’t bail on you at the last minute.
Become More Mindful
Our animal friends don’t sit and ponder the past or fret about the future. They’re focused on the here and now. Their thoughts are on the ball they’re chasing, the squirrel in the tree outside the window, or the dinner in their bowl—even if it’s the exact same dinner in the exact same bowl they eat every night. This doesn’t just make them good role models, it also helps their owners pay attention to the present moment as well.
Whether you’re enjoying a good game of fetch or a meditative walk, one of the best benefits of having a pet is allowing us to live in the moment—leaving stress and worries behind while enjoying the simple things in life we often take for granted.
Unfortunately, many people are allergic to cat and/or dog dander, making pet ownership difficult and even pretty uncomfortable. (Gesundheit!) New research has shown that you’re significantly less likely to develop pet allergies if you had pets during our first year of life—half as likely. In fact, it’s the #1 way to reduce pet allergies. And check this out: babies raised in homes with two or more dogs or cats were shown to be up to 77% less likely to develop allergies not just to pets, but also dust mites, ragweed, and grasses.
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be allergic. (Unless you really don’t want a pet. You have to decide what’s best for you and your family.)
One of the best benefits of having a pet, IMHO, is how much laughter pets bring to the house. For example, our biggest dog Bruce will twist his body nearly in half just so you can scratch the perfect spot, and he lets out the most enthusiastic yowl when the kids get home from school or work. Then there’s our little-big-head dog that will squeeze her body into the tiniest nook, just so she can be close to her people. And while our daughter’s cat turns her nose up if offered chicken or seafood, she’ll do almost anything for a bite of banana or a sugar snap pea.
As Lord Byron said, “Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.”
Pet ownership isn’t for everyone. But if you’re making a list of pros and cons list before heading over to the shelter to rescue a furry friend, improved health via reduced stress, loneliness, and allergies along with more activity, mindfulness, and laughter should absolutely hit the pro list. And if you’re like me and already have a couple of critters underfoot, take a minute to thank them for all the ways they’re helping you live happier and healthier. Fortunately, I have a few underfoot right now eager for some attention. Come on, guys, it’s time for our walk!