Pets can be a great companion and fun to have around the house. But did you know they can help keep you healthy? Owning a pet has been shown to have a variety of health benefits, both physically and mentally – and those mental affects often translate into the physical.
In this article we’ll discuss the general benefits of pet ownership and the specific ways having a pet can help protect two of the most important areas of the body – the heart and the brain. We’ll also cover what you need to know if you do want to bring a pet into your life or as a companion for your senior parent.
Pets can improve your general outlook on life
Playing with or even just petting your dog or cat can lift your mood, help you feel more positive and bring more meaning into your life. People with pets are generally happier, more trusting, and less lonely than those who don’t have pets. They also visit the doctor less often for minor problems, according to WebMD.
Physically, interacting with pets helps your body release a relaxation hormone, and cuts down on levels of a stress hormone. Stress over a prolonged period of time has been linked to an increase in blood pressure, which is a risk factor for both heart disease and stroke (amongst other major health problems).
Pet owners tend to be more active
The research done surrounding pets and physical activity has primarily focused on dogs. The New York Times shared results of a large-scale study conducted in Britain: “In general, according to both the questionnaires and activity monitors, most dog owners spent close to 300 minutes each week walking with their dogs, which was about 200 more minutes of walking per week than people without dogs. Due primarily to these walks, most dog owners met or exceeded the standard guidelines for exercising for health, which call for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week.”
As you probably know, exercise (if allowed by your doctor), is an important part of maintaining heart and brain health. But the benefits go beyond that in the form of improved cardiorespiratory fitness and muscular strength, and reduced risk of chronic diseases and killers such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.
Pets increase social interaction (and reduce feelings of loneliness)
Pets, especially dogs, can help you connect with other people. It provides a common bond with other pet owners whom you might not chat or spend time with otherwise. It can be an ice breaker and opportunity for people you don’t know to smile and approach, providing a chance for conversation. For those who are introverted or shy, a pet can be a great way to be social without feeling uncomfortable.
Social interaction has been shown to help with heart and brain health. The theory is that social interactions may act as a buffer, protecting you from the potentially harmful effects of ongoing stress and the way your body responds to it. This stress response involves your body’s release of adrenaline, which causes your heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise.
Being around other people and doing activities you enjoy can also ward off depression, which is a significant risk factor for poor outcomes in people with heart disease. In recent years, researchers have begun to study the cardiovascular effects of social isolation and have deduced that feeling alone may hurt your heart even more than actually being alone. That could be because loneliness – the feeling that you have no one to turn to and that no one understands you – is a form of stress.
Researchers in a 2016 study noted that loneliness or social isolation was associated with a 29% higher risk of coronary artery disease and a 32% higher risk of having a stroke. This doesn’t prove that loneliness or social isolation is the cause, but it adds to existing studies and theories about loneliness, which has already been linked to a compromised immune system, high blood pressure, and even an early death.
The link between pets and heart and brain health
All of the above – reduced stress levels and positivity, exercise, and social interaction – can improve some of the main factors that are linked to heart disease and stroke risk.
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased cholesterol levels
- Decreased triglyceride levels
Even if you are not able to exercise with your pet or even own one yourself, you may still be able to reap the heart and brain benefits. According to Marwan Sabbagh, MD, Director of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health: “Simply petting an animal can decrease the level of the stress hormone cortisol and boost release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, resulting in lowered blood pressure and heart rate and, possibly, in elevated mood.”
There may be programs at your local library or senior center in which therapy dogs are brought in that you or your aging parent can spend time with. Or visit a friend or neighbor who has a pet!
Choosing the Right Pet & Proper Care
While pets can help your health, ultimately you should only get one if it’s right for you and you have the desire to. Getting a pet is a commitment, so make sure you take the time to choose one that’s best for you. And you’ll want to learn how to care for it.
You can start by doing some research to see what pet makes the most sense for you and your lifestyle. The CDC recommends you ask yourself these questions before getting a pet:
- What does the pet eat?
- How much exercise does the pet need?
- How large will it become?
- How much will it cost for veterinary care?
- Do I have enough time to properly care for and clean up after the pet?
- What type of habitat does this pet need to be healthy?
- What type of exercise does this pet need?
- Are pets allowed in my house, apartment, or condominium?
- Are there young children, older people, or people with weak immune systems who will care for or be around the pet?
It’s of vital importance to learn proper care of your pet not only for the pet’s sake, but for your sake as well. Regular visits to the vet, keeping with vaccinations, flea and tick control, and deworming will likely be part of the routine of having a pet. Providing a healthy diet and plenty of water and exercise will help keep your pet healthy and happy, which means you will keep yourself healthy, too!
Taking steps to improve your health doesn’t always involve a cute furry animal, but in this case it does! Getting a pet can be a great joy in your life or that of your parent, but it is a responsibility. If you’re not sure your loved one can care for it, consider a caregiver to help with that and other daily activities they may need assistance with. Having a caregiver can also have a positive impact on health. Schedule a time to chat with one of our client service specialists to learn more.
- About Pets & People – CDC
- Why Having a Pet of Any Kind May Boost Your Mood and Keep Your Brain Healthy – Cleveland Clinic Available.
- Six Ways Pets Improve Your Health – WebMD
- Loneliness and isolation raise risk for stroke and heart disease, study suggests – Harvard Health
- Dog Owners Get More Exercise – New York Times