If you’re a pet owner you know how much joy they can bring to your life, simply by existing. We love our pets. We feed them and give them shelter, take them on walks and play with them. We love them, and they love us right back. Aside from all of the love and joy pets bring into our lives, did you know that studies show they can even make us healthier?
Can Pets Help Keep You Healthy?
You take good care of your pet. But what’s your pet done for you lately?
- Scared intruders from your door?
- Fetched your slippers?
- Given you a loving nuzzle?
People have lots of reasons for owning pets. Now a small but growing body of research suggests that owning or interacting with animals may have the added benefit of improving your health.
People and animals have a long history of living together and bonding.
Perhaps the oldest evidence of this special relationship was discovered a few years ago in Israel—a 12,000-year-old human skeleton buried with its hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup.
If you’re a pet lover, you probably don’t find this hard to imagine at all!
“The bond between animals and humans is part of our evolution, and it’s very powerful,” says Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
Today animal companions are more popular than ever.
The pet population nationwide has been growing dramatically for nearly a half century, from about 40 million pet cats and dogs in 1967 to more than 160 million in 2006.
About two-thirds of U.S. households now own at least one pet.
Chances are many of the people of the people in your life own a pet or two.
“When you see how long we’ve had pets in our lives, and how important they are to us today, I think it’s amazing that the study of human-animal interactions is still so new,” says Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Researchers have only recently begun to explore this wonderful relationship and what its health benefits might be.”
It’s true that scientific study of the human-animal bond is still in its infancy. Several small or anecdotal studies have uncovered intriguing connections between human health and animal interactions.
However, more rigorous follow-up studies have often shown mixed results.
“The general belief is that there are health benefits to owning pets, both in terms of psychological growth and development, as well as physical health benefits,” says Dr. James Griffin, a scientist at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
“But there have been relatively few well-controlled studies. That’s the state of the science, in a nutshell.”
This past year, NIH hosted several meetings to bring together leading experts in the field of human-animal interactions. The investigators discussed findings to date and ways to improve ongoing research.
Some of the largest and most well-designed studies in this field suggest that four-legged friends can help to improve our cardiovascular health. One NIH-funded study looked at 421 adults who’d suffered heart attacks.
A year later, the scientists found, dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
Another study looked at 240 married couples. Those who owned a pet were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than those without pets.
Pet owners also seemed to have milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend.
Are you a pet owner? Do you find that you are less stressed now that you have a constant animal companion in your life? Do you feel healthier overall?