Did you know we are living through another epidemic? It affects over 60% of Americans and is the health equivalent of smoking two cigarettes per day. But this time it is not a virus—it’s loneliness, according to the U.S. Census Bureau survey. Fortunately this serious community health issue has the cutest solution: Puppies, kittens, chicks, bunnies, and even snakes and lizards. That’s right, it’s pets and 80% of people say their pets make them feel less lonely.
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How are pets good for your health?
Pets aren’t just good for your health, they’re one of the best things you can do for your health, says Annette Louviere, DVM, veterinarian and Data and Veterinary Genetics Manager at Wisdom Panel. (As long as you’re not terribly allergic to pets.)
It starts with your hormones: “Simply petting an animal helps to reduce cortisol levels, which is the primary stress hormone, while interacting with animals can increase oxytocin levels, the same hormone associated with feelings of love and bonding,” she says.
Pets can also affect our health indirectly. “Active animals, like dogs, encourage us to move around, play and take walks, thus providing physical activity for our pets and ourselves,” says Dr. Louviere.
She adds they can inspire us to create more good habits (like regular bedtimes), stick to a healthy daily routine, and can even lower healthcare costs as pet owners visit the doctor less than non-pet owners.
Not to mention how often our furry (or scaley) friends make us smile and laugh—both of which cause a cascade of positive changes in our bodies.
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What does the science say?
Research published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that pets offer many health benefits to their owners—physically, socially, and mentally.
Physical health benefits of owning a pet
- Decreased blood pressure
- Lower cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels
- Slower heart rate
- Stronger immune system
- Better memory and cognitive functions
Mental health benefits of owning a pet
- Less anxiety
- Lower rates of depression
- Fewer symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)
- Greater sense of well-being and happiness
Social health benefits of owning a pet
- More opportunities to socialize with others
- Less feelings of loneliness
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In 2008, the National Institutes of Health launched a research initiative to examine the relationship between pets and our health. Here’s some of what they found over the next ten years of research:
- Scientists looked at 421 heart attack victims—some dog owners, some not—a year after they’d suffered their myocardial infractions. Dog owners who had canine companions were far more likely to be alive than were those without, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
- A study of more than 2,000 adults found, not surprisingly, that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog. Another study followed older adults and found that those who regularly walked a dog had greater mobility inside their homes than others who took part in the study.
- Walking a dog leads to more conversations and helps you stay socially connected, which in turn leads to living longer with fewer mental and physical declines as you age, another study indicates.
- It’s not just seniors and other adults who benefits. Kids who read books to animals in a classroom setting showed better social skills and more sharing, cooperation, and volunteering. They also had fewer behavioral problems.
- Diabetic teens who were given a fish to care for were more disciplined about checking their own blood glucose levels, which is essential for maintaining their health.
While there are still some health aspects of the pet-person relationship that remain unclear, what is becoming more and more apparent is that pets provide many benefits, physically and mentally, to their owners. The key, says Dr. Louviere, is rather than seeing a pet as a one-size-fits-all solution, is to do your research and find an animal that matches your personality, needs, and lifestyle.
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Additional writing and reporting by Charlotte Hilton Andersen.