The “Fur”ever Bond Between Humans and Animals: Reaping the Benefits of Pet Ownership
October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, and the perfect time to consider bringing a four-legged friend into your home. Most of us agree that animals bring smiles to our faces. How many of us have spent hours watching adorable animal antics on YouTube or gone out of your way to greet a dog being walked on the opposite side of the street? Of course, watching animal videos or greeting every pet you meet doesn’t necessarily indicate a desire to own one of your own—but what if a pet could improve your quality of life? Aside from just being cute, did you know that pets can improve the lives of their owners, both physically and emotionally?
If you are on the fence about whether owning a pet is the right move for you, consider some of the benefits! While this list is not exhaustive, it might help make the decision a bit easier.
Benefits of Pet Ownership
Less Stress and More Activity
When we are stressed, our bodies respond by increasing the production of cortisol, a hormone that helps us respond to perceived threats in our environment. Long-term activation of this stress hormone can cause a multitude of health problems, but spending time with our furry friends can lower our cortisol levels. In a study conducted by Washington State University, students who physically interacted with cats and dogs for just ten minutes experienced a significant reduction in cortisol levels. Similar studies were conducted looking at the effects on veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and produced the same findings.
Many people who experience stress will list exercise near the top of their lists of healthy coping mechanisms. Pet owners have been shown to get more physical activity than their non-owner counterparts, particularly those who own dogs. According to research published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, dog owners walk one hour more per week compared to individuals who do not own dogs, with dog owners more likely to meet the CDC guidelines for moderate physical activity. Although many of the studies looking into the activity levels of people with pets vs. those without pets focus on dogs, most pets require some level of exercise that expands beyond the level of activity required in solo activities.
Lower Blood Pressure and Risk of Heart Attack
Since stress is a known risk factor of hypertension, decreased stress can also help decrease blood pressure. Research confirms this, as many additional studies have found that individuals with hypertension experienced a reduction in blood pressure within minutes of interacting with cats and dogs. Lower blood pressure in itself is beneficial to heart health, but even pet owners with normal blood pressure can take comfort in knowing that their pets are still protecting their hearts.
A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that individuals who had never owned cats were 40% more likely to die of a heart attack than those who had owned cats at least once in their lives. This finding was not specific to cats, however. A similar study conducted by Swedish researchers found that the risk of dying from heart disease was 15% lower in dog owners than in people who did not own dogs.
While it is not yet known exactly how playing with our pets can have such a profound impact on us physically, it is clear that our furry friends can calm us just by being near, and there is no doubt that we could all use a little less stress in our lives.
Alleviation of Depression and Loneliness
The use of animals to diffuse feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression in humans is becoming increasingly prevalent. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recognizes animal-assisted therapy as a valid treatment for depression and other mood disorders. Researchers studying the bond between humans and animals found that when human subjects stared into the eyes of their beloved pets, their bodies elicited the same hormonal response that allows us to bond with human infants—so it looks like we have every right to refer to them as our fur babies!
Not only do our interactions with pets directly affect our moods, but they can also do so indirectly by helping us form connections with others. Social connectedness is incredibly important to our overall health and wellbeing, and this is especially true as we age. Older adults are especially prone to social isolation for a variety of reasons, with many adults over the age of 65 living alone. However, in a study published in Aging and Mental Health, older pet owners who lived alone were 36% less likely to report feeling lonely than older adults who did not own pets. Pets alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation in older adults by not only keeping them company but also by helping them interact with other humans and develop meaningful relationships. Having a furry friend by your side is an almost fail-proof conversation starter, because pets invite socialization and open the door for communication. It is extremely difficult for many people to pass up a chance to engage with an adorable pet.
Improved Cognitive Function
There doesn’t seem to be a single area of our lives that pets don’t change for the better. In addition to the benefits already discussed, regularly interacting with pets is also shown to improve brain health. Research focusing on the effects of pet therapy on elderly inpatients with cognitive impairment found that interacting with pets sparked positive memories. Further studies reported older individuals who were less responsive due to stroke or dementia smiling and, in some cases, even talking after interacting with pets. Whether it is by taking us back to the past by evoking happy memories or by helping us stay in the present and focus on the here and now, our pets might just be improving our brain power, one cuddle at a time.
Owning a pet is a huge responsibility, but considering the positive impact pets have in nearly every aspect of our lives, the pros of pet ownership far outweigh the cons. Regardless of your species preference, you can find your perfect pet and reap the many benefits they provide.
About Elan Skilled Nursing and Rehab
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To schedule a personal tour or talk to our admissions team about care, we encourage you to contact Melissa Bednar at 570-344-6177.
Learn more about Elan Skilled Nursing and Rehab at elanseniorlife.org.