How Pets Make Us Healthier

Vicki Redden

DogWelcome-featureTanya dropped her head in her hands as a silent tear slid down her cheek. Waves of grief washed over her as her mind replayed the difficulties of the past year. Her marriage had ended in divorce, and she had lost her job. A cross-country move had left her reeling, and now, on top of it all, she’d just received a diagnosis of depression and bipolar disorder. She felt like a failure.

One thing her doctor recommended was a pet. Skeptical, but willing to try anything, she soon brought home a tiny dog named Sammy. The pair quickly became inseparable.

Taking care of Sammy and his needs gave Tanya something to live for. And his unconditional love and companionship soothed her aching soul. Sitting and stroking his silky fur calmed her, and his antics brought more and more smiles to her face. Just getting outside with him and taking him for a walk brightened her mood, and she even met a few neighbors who stopped to admire the puppy. Her outlook began to change. She found herself waking up with a new sense of peace and calm. Could this really be all because of a dog?

Anyone with a beloved pet will tell you that there is a very real feeling of calm that their pets bring them after a long day—and science agrees. Pets really are good for your health. Adding a furry friend to your life can have surprising results—physically, emotionally, and mentally. Studies have shown a number of advantages to having an animal companion, including:

Reduced anxiety and stress

Spending time with your animal companion can lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and increase serotonin and oxytocin, both of which help you feel better.

Lower blood pressure

In some studies, petting a dog or cat actually reduced blood pressure better than some medications.

Improved heart health

In a 20-year study, people who never owned a cat were 40 percent more likely to die of a heart attack than those who had a cat; and dog owners had a significantly higher survival rate one year after a heart attack than those who didn’t have a dog. All pet owners showed a lower risk of death from all cardiac diseases, including heart failure.

Ease of symptoms of depression

Animals show unconditional love, are terrific stress relievers, and are great listeners.

Increased physical fitness (especially in dog owners)

Dogs need to be walked, and someone has to take them. For those who are inactive or can’t do strenuous physical exercise, taking several walks around the block with your dog throughout the day or tossing a ball for them will help you be more physically fit.

Stronger immune system

Compared to families without pets, children in homes with pets tend to have improved immune systems and have reduced allergies, asthma, and eczema.

Pain relief

Time spent with a pet causes the release of endorphins, which help you feel better both physically and emotionally. This is one reason why therapy dogs who visit hospitals and nursing homes can be so helpful.

Vicki Redden lives in North Carolina with her family and their own menagerie of pets, including a bulldog, a Chihuahua, two parakeets, and a pair of hermit crabs. Her seven-year-old daughter, Kate, has already caught on to the health benefits of pets: while Vicki was writing this article, Kate told her, “I like playing with my animals. It helps me feel happier and more relaxed.”

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