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It’s Official: Pets Can Boost Mental and Physical Health


Animals have been a part of humanity’s story for as long as humans have had a story, and for much of history humans have incorporated animals into their lives as pets. Many people attest to the ways their pets bring value to their lives, and there is even scientific research to back up those anecdotal claims. 

The National Institutes of Health spent more than 10 years in a partnership with the Mars Corporation’s WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition studying what impact different types of pets have on human health. The results are fascinating and comforting. It turns out that our beloved pets really are good for our health.

The study delved into the variety of benefits derived from interacting with pets. Different types of animals confer different benefits, too. For example, if you think that you could use a bit more exercise in your life, an active dog that needs to be walked daily could be your next best friend. Feeling stressed? Watching an aquarium full of colorful fish swim back and forth can be very calming.

Dr. Ashley Wilk

Dr. Ashley Wilk, a family medicine physician and faculty member at Florida State University College of Medicine/Winter Haven Hospital Family Medicine Residency Program at BayCare, explains how our pets can have a positive impact on our health.

“Pets motivate us to make healthy lifestyle changes, including increasing our physical activity,” says Wilk, who is a dog mom to a Golden Retriever. 

“Dog owners participate in almost twice the amount of physical activity as compared to non-dog owners. Achieving recommended levels of physical activity reduces the risks of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. In the setting of a stressful event, pets have been shown to help control hypertension even more than some blood pressure medications.” 

Even short-term engagement with animals can produce positive reactions. Many institutions incorporate time with therapy animals into their schedules for this reason.

“Studies have shown that spending time with cats and dogs is associated with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” she explains. “This has been noticed even with brief animal interactions. Wellness programs at colleges and workplaces have begun hosting pet visiting sessions aimed at stress reduction.”

There are numerous mental health and behavioral effects associated with pet ownership. Being responsible for another creature’s life can foster a greater sense of accountability in an individual, as researchers discovered in a study looking at diabetic teenagers who were tasked with caring for a pet fish. 

The teens had to feed the fish and check water levels twice daily, plus change the tank water once a week. Researchers found that when compared to a control group of teenagers who were not given fish to care for, the fish-keeping teens were more diligent about checking their blood glucose levels, which is vital for diabetic patients to maintain good health.

Another study found that children with autism spectrum disorder had lower levels of anxiety and improved social interactions after a 10-minute session of enjoying supervised playtime with guinea pigs. Kids with ADHD also became calmer, better able to focus their attention, and had healthier social behaviors after reading aloud to a therapy dog for 30 minutes.

Wilk provides some insight as to how animals seem to create such appreciable results in these short interactions.

“Therapy animals provide comfort and encourage mindfulness in healthcare settings such as hospitals and nursing homes,” says Wilk. “Animals themselves are mindful, present in the moment and attentive to the person in front of them. Practicing mindfulness, such as when petting a dog, can help patients manage pain and relieve stress. Pets have been shown to provide benefits in community settings, including classrooms, as well.” 

Having a pet in the home as part of one’s daily life can be beneficial, too, as long as the animal doesn’t trigger allergies, asthma, or other health conditions. Individuals who are at risk for falls, such as the elderly, should probably avoid larger animals that could potentially knock them over. 

It’s important to consider an animal’s needs before committing to them. The size of the home or yard is a factor when choosing a pet, as well as the amount of time and attention the creature will require. Still, a carefully selected pet can be a great boon for many people.

“The bond of companionship we have with our pets positively impacts our mental and emotional health. Pets enrich feelings of happiness and self-worth. Having a pet in the home can reduce loneliness and increase a sense of security. Activation of oxytocin, a ‘feel-good’ hormone, has been shown to occur when gazing at a pet,” Wilk elaborates. 

“Pets provide us with companionship and unconditional love. They fulfill the human need for touch. Caring for a pet can enhance our sense of security, comfort of routine, and self-esteem,” she says. “Pets decrease loneliness and provide companionship.”

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