6 Ways Pets Improve Your Health

PetMD Editorial
Updated: August 18, 2015
Published: April 03, 2014
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Adopt a Pet, Save Your Life

You’ve heard before: Adopt a pet from a shelter or rescue and you save a life. And while those words ring true 365 days each year, they have even more meaning on April 11 – National Pet Day, founded by animal welfare advocate Colleen Paige in hopes of saving some of the 16,000 unwanted pets killed each day in U.S. shelters. Indeed, providing a forever home for a dog or cat is a loving, noble and worthwhile act. But based on findings from some four decades of medical research, their lives aren’t the only ones being “saved” in their adoption. Here are six ways pets can save your life from America’s top killer – heart disease – and improve your overall health:

Stress Management

Nerves frayed from working like a dog? Your dog (or cat) works for you, providing instant “om” for stress relief. Through their constant entertainment, affection and loving antics, they provide joyful mental floss for whatever bites at our spirit. Just how much? Consider one study from the State University of New York at Buffalo, in which researchers found that when conducting a stressful task, people experienced less stress when their pets were with them than when accompanied by a spouse, family member or close friend. (Sorry, two-legged loved ones.)

And the benefits of pets aren’t only for here-and-now stress: Returning soldiers victimized by Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) – a potentially devastating condition in which a terrifying ordeal such as war warps the “fight-or-flight” response – report impressive, if not amazing, improvement from trained service dogs provided by groups such as K9s for Warriors

Lower Blood Pressure

Studies vary on the actual impact, but this much seems clear: Having a pet seems to have the potential to keep blood pressure in check – especially in those at-risk or already diagnosed with high blood pressure, reports to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exercise, of course, is one way to control blood pressure – and dogs help provide that.

But don’t fret, feline aficionados: After University of Minnesota researchers studied 4,435 Americans between ages 30 and 75, they concluded that those without a cat had a 40 percent higher risk of heart attack and a 30 percent great risk of dying from heart disease than did cat owners.

Lower Cholesterol and Triglycerides

Another heart-helping benefit of pet ownership: Pet owners of either gender – but men, in particular – typically have lower levels of artery-clogging cholesterol and triglycerides than those without four-legged friends.

Why? Although some speculate that healthier people are just more likely to have pets, the American Heart Association notes that dogs help (or require?) their owners adopt a healthier lifestyle. One study of more than 5,200 adults showed that dog owners not only engaged in more walking and physical activity than non-dog owners, but were 54 percent more likely to get the “recommended level of physical activity.”

Reduced Pain

Granted, sometimes pets are a pain – think chewed shoes or soiled rugs – but if you have chronic pain caused by arthritis, migraines or other conditions, they can be effective medicine…literally. One study from Loyola University found that when patients recovering from total joint replacement surgery received hospitals visits from therapy dogs, they required 50 percent less post-operative pain medication compared to other surgical patients.

Another study, at a Pittsburgh pain clinic, found that 84 patients with fibromyalgia who engaged with dogs for just 15 minutes prior to an appointment with their doctor reported having less pain, fatigue and stress compared 49 other patients who didn’t interact with the dogs. Coincidence? Not according to the researchers who recommend expanded use of dogs in doctors’ offices. 

Help with Depression

Along with medication and other treatments, those with mild to moderate depression feel better with Fido or felines. Reasons: Pets provide unconditional, and uncomplicated, love to improve self-esteem. They require attention and responsibility, which experts say can add positive focus, value and importance to the lives of the depressed, They invoke routine, and a daily schedule is another benefit to those with depression. And pets, of course, combat the isolation that often fuels depression.

Beyond just a mind-mending distraction, pets can actually promote feel-good hormones: Studies show that just petting a dog or cat boost levels serotonin and dopamine, two brain chemicals that some research suggests can cause or worsen depression when in short supply. If you don’t have depression, maybe you can thank your pet.

Fewer Allergies

Take note, expecting and new Moms: In recent years, several studies have found that infants’ later risk of developing allergies and asthma is reduced – as much as 50 percent – when they are exposed to dogs. More great news: Babies who live in a pet-filled household also tend to develop stronger immune systems compared to young’uns in canine-free homes.  

The explanation, discovered just months ago: Apparently, there’s something in the dust of dog-filled homes that seems to promote a protective response against microbes that have been linked to allergies and asthma.