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IMAGE You’ve had a horrible day. Your car was hit in the parking lot, you missed a project deadline, and you’re starving. You juggle your briefcase and keys, open the front door, and are greeted by a lop-sided grin and wagging tail. Laughing, you reach down and playfully tussle your Labrador’s head—all the worries melting away as you romp on the living room carpet. Ah, the joys of pets.

There is no doubt that the companionship and love a pet can offer is a valuable thing. But, maybe the benefits of pets go beyond this emotional bond. A growing body of evidence suggests that those who keep pets are likely to benefit from a variety of improvements in health.

Benefits in Older Adults

One study of older men and women found that owning a cat or dog helped maintain or even slightly enhance their Activities of Daily Living (ADL) score. This scale included questions about being able to do activities like walking several blocks, getting in and out of bed, preparing meals, bathing and dressing, and preparing food. Though this study found no direct link between psychological well-being and pet ownership, people in this survey who owned pets and had lower social support in a crisis situation were less likely to experience a decline in psychological well-being when compared to those with lower social support who did not have pets.

Pets can also help alleviate may of the problems associated with Alzheimer's disease and dementia . Researchers found that having a pet in the home reduced stress and anxiety-related outbursts. Benefits also extend to caregivers, who are under constant stress.

The Heart Health Benefits of Pets

Studies have shown that those who own pets may have significantly lower systolic blood pressure, triglyceride values, and cholesterol levels than those who do not own pets.

A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that male dog owners were significantly less likely to die within one year after a heart attack than those who did not own a dog. These findings were significant, though you cannot generalize these findings to all people.

Mental Health Benefits

Pets may not only improve your physical health, but they may also provide their owners with an important source of social and emotional support. One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology compared pet owners to non pet owners. The study concluded that pet owners had greater self esteem and were:

  • More physically fit
  • More conscientious
  • More extroverted
  • Less fearful
  • Less preoccupied

Older adults who live alone may also benefit from having a pet. Taking care of a pet promotes improved well-being and less loneliness.

Children and Pets

The next time your child asks to get a dog or cat, you may want to give your answer some thought. Children who have pets develop positive feelings about them, which can lead to greater self-esteem and self-confidence.

Children can learn to become more responsible by caring for another living creature. The experience allows them to connect with nature and learn respect for other living things.

Owning a pet can also foster non-verbal communication, compassion, and empathy, which may be especially therapeutic to children with autism spectrum disorders.

Why We Benefit From the Company of Animals

Having a pet provides owners with:

  • Companionship
  • Increased opportunities for exercise, especially if you own a dog
  • Entertainment
  • Have something to care for and a source of consistency
  • Security and comfort
  • Opportunities to socialize with other pet owners
  • An improved sense of well-being

Is a Pet Right For You?

Does this mean you should run to the nearest pet store and buy a cat, bird, or fish? Though preliminary research suggests that pet ownership may be beneficial to your health, you need to make sure that the pet you choose fits in with your lifestyle, habits, experience, and expectations. Because pets are completely dependent on you for everything, it’s important to make sure that you’re willing to commit to the responsibilities they entail. If you’ve never had a pet before, consider starting with a pet that doesn't need much attention before jumping right into dog or cat ownership.

  • American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

    http://www.aspca.org

  • American Veterinary Medical Association

    http://www.avma.org

  • Animal Alliance of Canada

    http://www.animalalliance.ca

  • Canadian Veterinary Medical Association

    http://canadianveterinarians.net

  • Allen K, Blascovich J, Mendes W. Cardiovascular reactivity and the presence of pets, friends, and spouses: the truth about cats and dogs. Psychosom Med. 2002;64:727-739.

  • Pets and children. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website. Available at: http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families%5Fand%5FYouth/Facts%5Ffor%5FFamilies/Facts%5Ffor%5FFamilies%5FPages/Pets%5FAnd%5FChildren%5F75.aspx. Updated May 2013. Accessed September 12, 2014.

  • Allen K, Shykoff B, Izzo J. Pet ownership, but not ACE inhibitor therapy, blunts home blood pressure responses to mental stress. Hypertension. 2001;38:815-820.

  • Friedmann E, Thomas S. Pet ownership, social support, and one-year survival after acute myocardial infarction in the Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial (CAST). Am J Cardiol. 1995;76:1213-1217.

  • McConnell A, Brown C, et al. Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Dec; 101(6):1239-52.

  • Owning a pet may protect your from heart disease. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/Owning-a-Pet-May-Protect-You-from-Heart-Disease%5FUCM%5F453586%5FArticle.jsp. Updated February 3, 2014. Accessed September 12, 2014.

  • Raina P, Waltner-Toews D, Bonnett B, et al. Influence of companion animals on the physical and psychological health of older people: an analysis of a one-year longitudinal study. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1999;47:323-329.

  • Stanley IH, Conwell Y, et al. Pet ownership may attenuate loneliness among older adult primary care patients who live alone. Aging Ment Health. 2014;18(3):394-399.

  • The therapeutic & health benefits of pets. Helpguide website. Available at: http://www.helpguide.org/life/pets.htm. Updated July 2014. Accessed September 12, 2014.

  • The truth about cats and dogs: Pets are good for mental health of 'everyday people." American Psychological Association website. Available at: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2011/07/cats-dogs.aspx. Published July 11, 2011. Accessed September 12, 2014.

  • What are the health benefits of pet ownership: RSPCA website. Available at: http://kb.rspca.org.au/What-are-the-health-benefits-of-pet-ownership%5F408.html. Accessed September 12, 2014.