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  • Writer's pictureAlan Frischer, MD, MPH

Health Benefits of Pets

So many of us have been nesting in our homes during this past year, and some areas of the economy have boomed, including the stock market, home purchases, home improvement, exercise equipment, and home delivery services for absolutely everything. Another notable booming area is pet adoption. In a typical year, 3.2 million pets are adopted from shelters. This past year? More than 12 million pets were adopted.

The reason is obvious; pets made fantastic companions at a time when many of us became so much more isolated. One of my daughters is a perfect example, and her dog is now a cherished member of the family. Beyond the fact that this new addition is adorable, loving, and tremendously entertaining, let’s address the many health benefits that pets offer.

Note: most of the studies I looked at involve dogs, but we can pretty safely assume that cats, birds, and other pets offer similar benefits.

  • Dogs are good for the heart, and can help us live longer. Even petting a dog lowers the blood pressure and heart rate, slows breathing, and relaxes muscle tension. Studies show that petting a dog for 10 minutes lowers cortisol levels, that owning a dog can lead to a decrease in cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and that those with a history of heart disease gain protective effects in terms of experiencing another event.

  • Dogs can help us to cope with a crisis. Studies on military veterans with PTSD show they do better both physiologically and psychologically when they have a service dog.

  • Dogs encourage us to exercise. Dog owners are nearly four times more likely than non-dog owners to meet daily physical activity guidelines. Dog owners spend nearly 300 minutes every week walking with their dogs. That is nearly 200 more minutes than for those without a dog.

  • Dogs help us to be more sociable. Walking with a dog makes us more approachable and provides a conversation starter. Research shows that dog owners have an easier time making friends, and those who have a strong attachment to a pet feel more connected in their human relationships.

  • Dogs make you a more attractive prospect. Both men and women swipe right more often when the picture includes a dog. (Most dog owners admit to taking more pictures of their dog than of their significant other.)

  • Dogs can make us happier. Staring into your dog’s eyes raises your oxytocin levels. People with dogs are less likely to suffer from depression.

  • Dogs can improve cognitive function. Studies found positive results among those with mental illness, significant decreases in agitation among patients with dementia, and improved social interactions.

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, dogs make us feel less alone. That has never been truer than throughout this pandemic. Our dogs were there for us even when people were not. They offer unconditional love and emotional support.

Before adopting a new pet, make sure that it is the right one for you. Do the research beforehand about the pet’s specific needs. Ask yourself whether you will feel the same as your life returns to a more “normal” state. Be aware of the costs, exercise needs, space requirements, time demands, and rules of your house or apartment. Can young children or older people with particular health conditions be around this pet?

In the interest of balance, I will add that it is possible for a pet to carry harmful germs that can make us sick even when the pet appears to be healthy. The most significant zoonotic diseases transmitted by dogs include ringworm, salmonellosis, leptospirosis, Lyme disease, campylobacter infection, giardia, cryptosporidium, and roundworms. Wash your hands after touching, feeding, playing, or cleaning up after your pet.

Our pets provide a wonderful motivation to keep us moving and stay healthy. Their companionship helps us to manage loneliness and depression. They are also a responsibility and commitment that will be a part of our lives for many years to come.

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