Puppy Love: How Pets Affect Your Health
By and large, American pet owners love their animals and are often willing to go to extremes to ensure their happiness. We painstakingly deliberate over which brand of cat chow to purchase. We walk our dogs, rain, shine or snow. We carefully hide our chocolate and cotton balls so Fido doesn’t become ill (and if he does, there’s always pet insurance). We tolerate allergies, cope with ruined furniture, and even stay home from vacation. Although we often undergo a lot for our pets, we may be gaining something that makes it more than worth it—our pets may be contributing to our health more than we realize.
For years, studies have been showing that pets can positively influence health. According to Michael Mollen, a family practice doctor at the Duluth Clinic, pets can impact your physical, mental, and social well-being.
“One simple reason owning a pet is good for you is because it provides more opportunities to get outdoors and stay active,” Mollen says, “And people who exercise and stay active usually have better heart health and lower blood pressure.”
In addition, Mollen explained that stress levels, which also affect heart health and blood pressure, can be lowered by pets. Pet owners have a lower risk of cardiovascular problems such as heart attack, as studies have shown repeatedly. One National Institutes of Health-funded study showed that of 421 heart attack patients, those who owned dogs were more likely to be alive one year later than were those who didn’t own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
While the platitude, “A dog is a man’s best friend,” may be cliché, it is true to some degree. Dogs can’t replace human relationships, but pets often provide needed comfort and companionship. No matter what kind of day you had at the office, your dog will never fail to greet you with enthusiasm when you arrive home.
Depression, a big concern for many people today, can also be helped by physical interaction with pets. “Depression is basically an imbalance of chemicals in the brain,” explains Mollen. “Like exercise, pleasurable activities such as spending time with pets will raise levels of serotonin and dopamine (good chemicals), as well as releasing endorphins (basically ‘indigenous morphine’).”
Also, pets can be great conversation starters. After all, who can resist a cute puppy? “Generally, if you go on a walk with your dog, you’ll be forced to interact with strangers—which is good for overall social wellness,” says Mollen. People who are able to maintain social connections tend to live longer and stay physically and mentally active longer, he notes.
It’s no wonder that pets are increasingly being used in assisted living, nursing homes, hospitals, and schools as therapy. Pets willingly show unconditional loyalty and love, while providing important physical and social outlets. If you’re struggling to find ways to stay active, feeling blue, or are ready to meet some new people, consider getting a pet—or spending more time with the one you own.