By Leslie Thompson
They’re members of your family. Best friends and confidants. They act as your alarm clock in the morning and a security guard at night. They’re your pets and then some. Ask any pet owner about the role their pet plays in their life and expect to pull up a chair and stay a while as they gush about their favorite four-legged critter. Simply stated, people love their pets. And for good reason. Studies have continually shown that people who own pets are happier, more productive, and overall healthier—both mentally and physically. It’s no surprise that a recent survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) shows that more than 57 percent of U.S. households own one or more animal. But how does owning a pet affect one’s health? You’d be surprised at how many ways!
Pet ownership is no recent development. As far back as 2000 B.C. animals were believed to be taken in as pets. Pets were so worshiped and loved that mummified bodies of dogs, cats, and even monkeys were found buried alongside their owners in Egypt. Alexander the Great (356 B.C.-323 B.C.) was a well-known pet lover—owning a large Mastiff-like hound among others.
So, what’s the magnetic force that draws millions of Americans toward pet ownership? A main one is the companionship pets provide. What could be more pleasant than having a furry friend cuddle up with you on the couch or greet you at the door each evening? For individuals prone to depressive episodes or psychiatric disorders, it’s beneficial to have a positive, constant companion, which is in part why studies have shown that owning a pet is therapeutic for people with mood and anxiety disorders.
Pets give that unconditional love many people lack in their lives. They don’t judge you, they stick with you through the good times and the bad, and they provide a relief from the day-to-day pressures of life. In fact, research has shown that when conducting a task that is stressful, people who had their pets around them experienced less stress. When an owner is around his or her pet, they are calmer, they speak softer, and they focus their attention away from whatever problems they are dealing with onto their pet.
Pets also force people to socialize and to interact with others, another excellent way to manage stress and also a way to help ease loneliness. Pets act as “social catalysts” and are conversation starters among strangers and lead to greater contact with others. They give an individual a reason to get up in the morning—an often-difficult task for elderly people and those dealing with depression.
Aside from the mental well-being pets provide, there are physical benefits of owning a pet. Pet owners are more active and tend to get more exercise then their non-pet-owner peers. Studies have shown that stroking a dog or cat can lower blood pressure and heart rate while also boosting levels of the mood-related brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Pets may also lessen the risk of heart attacks and they help individuals who have had previous heart conditions recover. Dog ownership in particular increased the odds for survival for people who have had a heart attack from 1 in 15 to 1 in 87. People who own pets tend to frequent the doctor less often and use fewer prescription drugs than those individuals who do not own pets.
Although the benefits of owning a pet are becoming more and more apparent, owning a pet is not for everyone. Deciding to adopt a pet is a decision that should not be jumped into lightly and selecting the appropriate pet to fit one’s lifestyle is important. Remember, pets become a member of the family and like any other member, require a lot of responsibility.