The Many Health Benefits of Pets

health benefits of pets

You probably have never heard your doctor say, “Hug two puppies and call me in the morning.” However, caring for a pet can bring numerous health benefits. Granted, animals carry germs and they require commitment.

Yet many sources report that the good outweighs the bad when it comes to four-legged friends. Read on to learn about the health benefits of pets.


Childhood Allergies and Asthma

Back in 2012, this interesting report quickly became popular. It explains several correlations between dog ownership and reduced allergies or asthma. Cats are mentioned too, but dogs are  featured more heavily. However, the report includes many possible explanations for the findings.

The data suggest that a pet in the home during the first year of a child’s development correlates with fewer breathing-related allergies and asthma later in life. After this developmental stage, there appeared to be no additional benefit.

The data also favor animals that spent part of the day outdoors. It is possible that the microbes, beneficial bacteria, pollens, dander and other materials the dog brings in, create a sort of antibiotic effect. The child may gain immunity through the gradual exposure to these mild contaminants. This falls in line with the theory that using too much hand sanitizer hinders the proper development of a child’s immune system (not to mention that triclosan is a dangerous toxin).


Better Heart Health

The National Institutes of Health says, “Some of the largest and most well-designed studies in this field suggest that four-legged friends can help to improve our cardiovascular health.” There are many possible explanations, including mental as well as physical factors.

The routine of caring for a pet may lower stress. A 2015 story in the journal Science said, “New research shows that when our canine pals stare into our eyes, they activate the same hormonal response that bonds us to human infants.”

Any pet, not just a dog, can enhance a person’s sense of purpose. An animal can encourage a person to think of another living creature and not dwell on personal worries or fears. In simpler terms, your pet can also be a good source of fun and recreation. I think all you pet owners will agree with that statement!

On the physical side, playing with or walking a pet provides exercise. That is why dogs seem to grab a lot of the headlines on this subject. In 2013, the American Heart Association reported that having a dog likely lowers the risk of heart disease. They concluded that “dog owners are more likely to exercise, have a better cholesterol profile, have lower blood pressure, be less vulnerable to the physical effects of stress, and be more likely to survive a heart attack.”

A Harvard researcher offered a possible alternate interpretation of these findings. He suggested that perhaps healthier people are more likely to own a dog, not the other way around.


Benefits for People with Disabilities

The presence of a dog can ease social interaction for autistic children and people with a visible disability. The pet makes it easier for people to approach, make eye contact and strike up a conversation.

fish tank autismAgain, think beyond just dogs. The blog Friendship Circle suggest, “Fish tanks can be really calming for people with sensory processing disorders.” They also mention how riding a horse can benefit a person who uses a wheelchair. The author writes, “Horse riding has great therapeutic benefits, improving muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination and motor development.” Not to be outdone, cats can offer comfort to anxious individuals with their warmth and purring.


A Longer Life

Many of these benefits add up to a longer life and better overall health. Psychology Today references the work of Trisha McNair, MD. She has “extensively studied the relationship between lifestyle and longevity [and] estimates that dog ownership adds about two years to your life.”

Lower stress and better heart health aren’t the only reasons. Pet owners are also less likely to be overweight or obese. When smokers get a pet, they often see their pet as motivation to quit. About one third of them say they feared second-hand smoke might harm their pet.


Pet Therapy

Mounting evidence about the benefits of pets have given rise to the field of pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy. Animals may visit a surgery patient in the hospital. They may reduce anxiety for people undergoing cancer therapy or veterans with PTSD. The Mayo Clinic, for example, has a dozen dogs enrolled in its Caring Canines program.


Benefits Versus Risks

This LA Times article weighs the benefits and risks of pet ownership. The author cautions against certain risks. For example, if you have balance and mobility challenges, a pet might cause you to trip. That could hurt both you and the pet.

If you need to keep the environment extra clean, pets may introduce unsanitary contamination. People with weak immune systems may want to avoid pets because they could bring in parasites, allergens and bacteria.

Potential bites could also be a concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States. Around one fifth of those become infected. Children aged 5-9 are the most likely victims. If you adopt a dog, hire a trainer or learn how to properly train it yourself. Then, teach children how to behave around dogs –  including what to do when confronted by a stranger’s dog.

Only you can decide if a pet is right for your family. In many cases, the benefits outweigh the risks. If you’re selecting a pet, you might invite a veterinarian into the selection process. They may be able to match you with the breed that best fits your health needs and family temperament.


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