The Surprising Health Benefits of Owning a Pet
Whether they’re furry, feathered or scaly, the non-human members of your family help you in more ways that you know. Here are six science-backed reasons your pet pal deserves an extra treat today.
Photo: Jaime Hogge
Dogs keep you active
If you have a dog, chances are you’re walking it at least 30 minutes a day, and likely more—an activity that goes a long way towards keeping you fit.
In fact, a British study of dog owners found that, on average, walking a pup added an extra 2,700 steps to their daily total, about 20 more minutes of physical activity per day than non-dog owners get. What’s more, most of that walking was done at a “moderate cadence”—enough to get your heart pumping but still carry on a conversation—the minimum intensity Health Canada recommends adults get for 2.5 hours a week.
Walking your pooch for that amount of time not only benefits your quality of life—it could prolong your life. Getting 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week reduces your risk of heart disease by up to 15 per cent, cuts your chances of developing breast, stomach, kidney and other cancers by up to 20 per cent, and helps prevent and manage diabetes.
And, as a bonus, more exercise during the day also seems to set the stage for better nights. According to a survey of 6,500 retired London civil servants, dog owners were more likely to report having an easier time falling asleep at night than non-dog owners. (Unfortunately, perhaps thanks to their nocturnal hijinks, cats seemed to have the opposite effect.)
Pets boost your immune system
According to the so-called hygiene hypothesis, identified in the late 1980s, growing up indoors in disinfected spaces later causes our bodies to overreact to harmless substances, making us more prone to allergies and asthma. Dogs and cats, with their muddy paws, copious dander and propensity for licking us, introduce more microbial diversity that habituates our immune systems. Research shows that children who live with pets from birth have lower rates of allergies and asthma, and the more animals in the house, the greater the protection. Kids with four or more cats or dogs had half the rate of allergies as non-pet owners.
Even in adulthood, there’s new evidence to suggest pets may have a notably positive effect on our guts—with links to both mental and physical health. One pair of researchers at the University of Arizona are studying whether the sharing of bacteria between dogs and their owners can alter our microbiome—the community of micro-organisms that dwell inside our bodies—in a way that changes our brain chemistry, alleviating major depression. “We were intrigued by previous research that found that dogs and humans share gut bacteria just by living in the same home, and you get the same amount from your dog as you do from your spouse,” says Dieter Steklis, co-director of the Human-Animal Interaction Research Initiative.
Pets lower your risk of a fatal heart attack
Researchers at the University of Minnesota tracked 4,000 people—most of them for over a decade—and found that cat owners had a 30 per cent lower risk of dying of a heart attack.
Given you don’t need to take a cat for walks, what accounts for the lower risk? The researchers hypothesized—and most cat owners would agree—that cats’ inherently unbothered nature has a calming effect. And research has shown that, like exercise, spending time with a pet—any pet—lowers stress, an important contributor to heart disease. In fact, students at Washington State University showed significantly lower levels of cortisol in their saliva after spending just 10 minutes petting a cat or dog. Other studies have shown that human-animal interaction lowers your blood pressure and releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, which reduces anxiety and pain and improves cardiovascular function.
They help you manage a chronic condition
With their clockwork expectations for feeding, walks, affection and play, animals don’t cut their owners much slack—and that can be a good thing for chronic disease sufferers of all types.
The benefits of animals in health care were first noted by Florence Nightingale in 1860, when she wrote that a pet tortoise named Jimmy provided great comfort to wounded soldiers hospitalized during the Crimean War. In the 1960s, child psychologist Boris Levinson observed that a withdrawn, non-verbal child suddenly began communicating when Levinson’s dog, Jingles, was in the room. The field of “pet therapy” was born, and visits from trained therapy animals are now commonplace in hospitals and nursing homes.
But outside of institutional settings, pets can also help people on a more ongoing basis with the daily management of long-term health conditions. According to University of Michigan research scientist Mary Janevic, this is especially true of chronic pain sufferers looking for non-pharmacological interventions.
In 2019, Janevic led a small study of older adults with arthritis, lower back pain and other conditions, and found that pets not only helped improve mood, but compelled their owners to stick to behavioural routines that improved their pain in the long run. These included daily walks, feeding, cleaning, affection and play. “When it hurts, you don’t feel like getting up and doing anything, but it’s a use-it-or-lose-it situation,” Janevic says. “When your body becomes deconditioned, weaker muscles lead to more pain.”
In addition to all that, Janevic also points out that pets’ greatest superpower against chronic suffering is their talent for drawing all the attention and focus. “If you’re distracted from the pain, you perceive less pain, and therefore you are in less pain,” she explains.
Kelly Redmon, a Virginia based therapist who suffers from complex regional pain syndrome, says fostering guinea pigs for a local rescue group has helped her cope with an often excruciating condition. “When I care for my animals, I have to stay present even through a flare-up,” she says. “I can’t get caught in a spiral of wondering, ‘Will the pain last forever?’”
Sometimes, Redmon adds, her pets provide vicarious joy. “When I watch my guinea pigs run around their little playpen through all the tunnels, I can see that it makes them happy, and that makes me happy, too.”
They reduce inflammation
Inflammation is how your body responds to a perceived injury or infection, and normally it’s a good thing—when a cut becomes red and swollen, for example, it’s because an army of white blood cells are swarming in to fight off harmful bacteria. But sometimes your immune system doesn’t switch off after the fight is over, and when inflammation becomes chronic, it can silently lay the groundwork for killer diseases like diabetes, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
In a small preliminary trial, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison assigned foster dogs from a local humane society to a group of volunteers aged 50 to 80. After three months with a dog, some blood tests showed a drop of up to 30 per cent in markers of inflammation, including interleukin-6 (IL-6), which has been linked to many inflammatory diseases, including diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, dementia, heart disease and cancer.
“Some of the subjects also reported that they felt an increase in their sense of well-being and improved social function,” says psychiatrist and study director Charles Raison. “We don’t know for sure whether there was an association between IL-6 levels and mental health, but it may work as a virtuous cycle—having a dog makes you feel better, which makes inflammation drop, and lower levels of inflammation make you happier.”
They improve your mental health
When Sharmeen Abeysinghe, 40, left her Toronto job as an early childhood educator in 2019, she was suffering from depression and burnout. “There were some days when I’d just forget to eat,” she says. Her doctor prescribed antidepressants, and she began to feel functional again. Then came the pandemic and multiple lockdowns, causing more stress. Fortunately, Abeyasinghe and her husband, who have two children, also decided to adopt a nine-month-old terrier-lab mix named Suki.
“We thought having a dog would give us something to do while we’re at home, and she has just transformed our lives,” Abeysinghe says. “I feel so lifted by her joy, energy and unconditional love. I’ve even told my doctor I don’t think I need my medication anymore.”
A number of studies have shown that pet ownership is beneficial for people with depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia and other long-term mental health conditions. Pet owners themselves report that their animal pals provide unconditional emotional support, foster self-acceptance, help them form social bonds and serve as distractions from upsetting symptoms or episodes.
Your pet might even be a valuable mindfulness coach. “If I’m awake with insomnia at night, my bunny Gus will sit by me and let me stroke him,” says Hina Low, a 30-year-old banking assistant in Toronto who suffers from bipolar disorder. “It’s like a meditation exercise. I focus on his soft fur, the warmth of his body and the feeling of his breathing.”
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