They love us unconditionally, listen without having to put in their two cents, and are always happy to see us. Our pets are our best friends, and they give us so much without asking anything in return.
But did you know that pets can also have a positive effect on our health? Pets are a link to health and wellness at every age, from infancy all the way through to our later years. Check out these eleven ways pets can improve our health:
1. Pets help children build immunity to allergies
It might seem counterintuitive, but research shows that exposure to pets early in life can actually help children build immunity to allergies. One study found that children who grow up in a home with a dog or cat are less likely to develop pet allergies – a phenomenon already seen in children who grow up on farms that raise large animals – 19% versus 33% of children in no-pet households. Researchers believe early exposure to dander and other allergens may allow young immune systems to get used to them so they don’t trigger allergic reactions. Unfortunately, the same is not true for the reverse – getting a pet as an adult will not result in reduced allergies.
Does this mean you should bring a pet into your household the day after you give birth? Of course not, but if you already have a pet, it means you may not necessarily have to change your lifestyle to accommodate your new arrival.
2. Children in households with pets have fewer illnesses overall
In a Journal of Pediatrics study, of nearly 400 children, those who lived with dogs and cats in their first year were sick less frequently than children without pets. They had fewer incidences of respiratory tract illnesses. In households with dogs, kids were 31% more likely to be in good health, 44% less likely to have ear infections, and 29% less likely to use antibiotics during their first year. While households with cats didn’t see quite so many benefits, their children were still 6% more likely to be in good health when compared to children in pet-free households.
Researchers believe that exposure to the allergens, dirt, and bacteria animals can track into the house allows the immune system to sort through the “normal” allergens that it doesn’t have to fight. Children in households with pets also have higher levels of some immune chemicals, which indicate stronger immune system activation.
Healthier children have fewer doctors’ visits and days missed at school – both of which amounts to better (mental) health for parents.
3. Pets can help lower blood pressure
Hypertension (high blood pressure) affects roughly a third of all Americans, and while it’s not a cure, owning a pet, paired with a careful diet and exercise, can help manage blood pressure.
One study of 240 couples showed that pet owners had lower resting blood pressure and heart rates than people without pets; blood pressure was also lower for pet owners in stressful situations.
In fact, during stressful situations, people respond more positively to pets than their spouses or friends!
4. Pets can benefit cardiovascular health
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., with one in three deaths being the result of heart disease or stroke. What if owning a pet could reduce this?
Research has shown pet owners see long-term benefits in heart health. One study showed that over a period of 20 years, cat owners were 60% less likely to die of a heart attack than those who did not own cats. Dog owners, according to another study, had a much higher survival rate after a heart attack. Fewer pet parents die as a result of cardiac disease, including heart failure – perhaps because pets give purpose to our lives.
5. Dogs help monitor blood sugar in diabetics
For diabetics, a sudden drop in blood glucose can be quite dangerous. But when you can’t monitor your blood sugar levels, such as when you’re sleeping, wouldn’t it be nice to have a little help?
As it turns out, some dogs have the uncanny ability to “sniff out” a dangerous blood glucose drop before it occurs. Researchers believe their heightened sense of smell can detect chemical changes in the body and allow them to alert their owners to eat something to stabilize their blood sugar. Organizations like Dogs for Diabetics train dogs with this special ability, and while they should never take the place of regular blood glucose monitoring, it’s nice to know you have some support nearby.
6. Dogs can predict seizures & alert family members
For those who struggle with seizure disorders such as epilepsy, every incident is dangerous and has the potential for serious injury. Specially trained “seizure dogs” may help prevent injury during an episode by barking and alerting family members when someone is having a seizure or by lying down next to a person having a seizure to help prevent injury. Other dogs have shown the ability to “predict” seizures before they happen, allowing their owners to lie down or move to a safe place before the episode occurs.
7. Improved immune response after petting a dog
How nice does it feel when you pet a dog or cat – both for you and it? “Feeling good” after petting an animal might also mean you will feel good health-wise.
Researchers from Wilkes University found that after 18 minutes of petting a dog, levels of immunoglobulin A, a type of antibody found in the nose, breathing passages, digestive tract, ears and eyes, were significantly increased. Immunoglobulin A antibodies protect these parts of the body from foreign substances, so it seems dogs really can help prevent our getting sick.
8. Pets help Alzheimer’s patients
Anyone who has struggled with Alzheimer’s understands how frustrating the condition can be. Pets, however, can help ease some of the stress of this challenging disease.
A study by the University of Texas shows that the use of therapy dogs with Alzheimer’s patients can result in increased socialization, improved social behaviors, and decreased agitation. Regular contact with a companion animal resulted in fewer episodes of verbal aggression, anxiety, and mood disorders.
Even the presence of fish can have a positive effect – residents in special care units increased their nutritional intake when aquariums were installed in the dining area.
9. Pets encourage healthy activities
One of our responsibilities as dog owners is to make sure they get their exercise. But the upside of this responsibility is that when we take them for walks, they often end up walking us!
A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less obese than those who neglected to walk their dogs or didn’t own dogs. Another three-year study of older dog owners found that dog walkers walked faster and longer every week compared to those who didn’t walk regularly.
Taking your dog (or even cat) for a daily walk can help you meet the minimum recommendation for daily physical activity. You can take one long walk during the morning or afternoon, or take two brisk, shorter walks. Regular exercise with your pet can also help with conditions such as osteoporosis and arthritis and help you maintain your mobility.
10. Pets boost mood and are conducive to social health
Simply watching a pet – a fish swimming, a cat pouncing, or a dog chasing a ball – can elevate your mood. Physical changes occur in the bodies when mood improves. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is reduced, and serotonin, the “feel good” hormone, is increased.
Being social is also key to a healthy body and mind, and pet owners can find that simply owning a pet leads to more social engagement. Many people enjoy stopping and conversing with pet owners, especially other pet owners. Pet ownership also opens up opportunities to interact with others at dog parks, training classes, and even breed-specific clubs and rescue organizations.
11. Pets make work less stressful
Did you know that taking your pet to work can make your job less stressful and more satisfying? A study in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that employees had less stress and were more satisfied with their jobs when dogs were present in the workplace. In fact, when compared to industry norms, job satisfaction was higher among employees who had pets in the office.
Having furry companions in the workplace can also spur creativity, promote physical activity, and encourage greater interaction amongst employees. Happy employees means happy clients, and happy clients are good for business.
It’s clear that pets not only make us happy but also keep us healthy. Return the favor, and take great care of your pet as a “thank-you” for all that it does for you and your wellness!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.