Ask any animal lover and they will tell you that the health benefits of pets are many. The reasons animal companions are good for us socially, physically and emotionally are as varied as the people who live with them and the types of pets they have.
Solid scientific studies objectively measuring long term health benefits of having a dog, cat or other pet may be sparse, but animal lovers don't need scientific evidence to know well the value of their beloved companion animals. Surveys show that the benefits of having a dog, cat or other pet includes stress relief, better moods, more social activity, higher self-esteem, and less loneliness than people without pets.
Few things are more calming than a purring cat on your lap, or snuggling with your furry, scaled, or feathered friend. Watching fish swim placidly in their well-cared for tank is hypnotic and mentally relaxing.
Recently, I heard that even petting a robotic pet reduces stress and blood pressure. How is that for a dose of pet therapy without any of the responsibility?
Pets also ease stress because they temporarily take our minds off what is bothering us. They make us laugh with their antics. They get us to play and focus on them for a while instead of our problems.
It feels good knowing you are making life good for another being. Empty-nesters enjoy nurturing a pet. Elderly nursing home patients fare better if they have the responsibility of watering a plant or feeding a pet. Young adults opting to delay child-rearing enjoy babying their dogs and cats. They enjoy the social aspects of being at the dog park or dog friendly restaurant, shopping for toys, outfits and treats, and tending to their pets needs.
When we join our animal companions for in the moment activities or quiet time, we also experience that presence. We become more resilient and learn to let go of moods quickly when an opportunity for fun and joy presents itself. When we mirror their state of presence we sense that we are okay, because in that moment, we are.
Unconditional love may be one of the most important psychological health benefits of pets. They never tire listening to you talk about your troubles. They never judge, criticize, share your secrets, or abandon you. (Okay, maybe temporarily if someone else is eating and you aren't.) Even if you are having a bad day and snap at them, they quickly forgive and keep on loving you. This trait is rare with humans, but animals seem to come by it naturally.
Pets create a mental and emotional safe space that only they excel at. This kind of pet therapy can be emotionally lifesaving when you are dealing with traumatic experiences or trying to heal from them. Unconditional love is one of the great healers.
Pets offer companionship and are a great antidote to loneliness. They love being with us and (depending on species) will join us for walks, swims, car rides, couch time, and shopping trips.
Animals bred as companions seek human company. Dogs brains light up in the same places as human brains when they see someone they love. Brain scans show they prefer your company over that of their best dog friends. When you have an animal companion, you always have someone to do something with and to talk to. Maybe for the best, they don't usually answer you back.
One of the health benefits of pets is that your brain releases the love hormone oxytocin when you pet them or snuggle with them. Not only does this hormone promote bonding and deeper love, it has health protective benefits as well. Your dog's brain also releases this same hormone in response to your loving attention.
Having a companion animal opens doors for you to socialize with other people. Whether out or at home, our pets give us something to talk about. People are likely to come up to you if you are out with your pet.
One of the benefits of having a dog is the opportunity for socializing at the dog park and dog-friendly restaurants and stores.
People come together for training classes and shows for different types of animals. Nowadays, people even organize social events around their pets, such as community dog walks, horse trail rides, and pet birthday parties.
On the flip side, another benefit of having dogs is that you are less likely to be a victim of crime when they are around.
The life lessons animals have to teach us are among the psychological health benefits of pets. They teach us about patience, empathy, presence, spontaneity, forgiveness, playfulness and so much more just by being who they are.
They have been my greatest teachers.
Children enjoy the health benefits of pets, too. Infants raised with animals tend to have fewer allergies. A loved pet can be a literal lifeline for children in emotional turmoil. This I know from personal experience. My Vara got me through much unhappiness during my teen years.
Children raised with pets, especially when they help care for them, report higher self esteem. They develop a sense of responsibility and caring for others. This prepares them for parenting. It's never too early to teach children to value and care for all living beings, and to develop empathy for them. Having an animal friend is a great way to do that.
Research supports the value of interacting with animals. Petting a feathered or furry friend decreases heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones. So does just being in its presence.
One of the benefits of having a dog is their eagerness to play with you and take walks. My dog's favorite word is 'walk'. Their enthusiasm is so great that they may abandon play and the chance of getting a bite off someone's plate when a walk is imminent.
Not to be outdone, some cats enjoy walks too.
Horseback riding is also great exercise. So is running and playing in the yard with your animal companions, or today's new rage - agility training and dance classes!
The health benefits of pets goes beyond companionship. Therapy and service animals improve the quality of life for people with special needs every day.
Autistic children benefit from equine therapy because riding a horse provides them with motor, emotional and sensory stimulation. Highly trained service dogs help people who are blind or deaf. They assist people with PTSD and other ailments. Their sense of smell is so sensitive that they smell changes in body chemistry signalling an oncoming seizure or blood sugar problem. Some sniff out cancer before medical screening can.
Almost 50 years ago, our German Shepherd located my mother's breast cancer after the doctor gave her a clean bill of health. He hit her breast with her paw while she was in the tub. causing the tumor hiding behind the chest wall to show itself. The doctor said he saved her life.
Pet therapy is becoming accepted in hospitals, nursing homes and rehab centers. Not only are patients happier, they are more relaxed and in less pain. They smile, need less pain medication, and heal faster.
From a feng shui perspective, animals help balance the energy in the living areas of your home. "Having pets in your home creates a flow of energy—a constant energy field—that makes your home yang, or more positive," says Marie Diamond, creator of the Diamond Feng Shui course. "It's not good to live in a yin (negative) home. Even a lively home with a lot of normal activity starts to become yin after everyone has left it for even a few hours. Pets help keep the life force active."
Living with dogs (and a couple of cats, hamsters, gerbils and fish) over the years, taught me firsthand the holistic health benefits of pets. It influenced the writing of my first book, Rescue Me: Tales of Rescuing the Dogs Who Became Our Teachers, Healers, and Always Faithful Friends. It is true that when we make life better for others, animal, plant, or human, we also make life better for ourselves. It is a universal spiritual law.
You can still experience the health benefits of pets without having one. Sometimes, not having a pet is the best choice. Having animals you can't properly care for and treat well will. in my opinion, erode your health. It is no different than if you were neglecting or abusing your human dependents.
f you are ready to get an animal companion, please adopt, don't shop. Millions need homes and are waiting for you. When you adopt, you save two animals, the one you adopted, and the one you just made room for. Do your homework ahead of time, and choose a pet you will enjoy and care for its entire life. Consider type of animal, age, size, grooming needs, expenses, care requirements, length of lifetime commitment, and breed. Choose a pet that makes you smile, one you can connect with and feel joy to have around, one you are willing to give to and receive from.
The health benefits of pets touch all aspects of holistic health - mental, emotional, physical and spiritual. They are a form of health care at its best and sharing your life with them is a priceless experience.