Health Benefits of Pets
By Mélanie Préfontaine-Darius, Communications
As research expands our knowledge on the health benefits of pets, society is becoming more and more pet friendly. Doctors are prescribing pets for mental illness and wellness, teachers are incorporating pets in the classroom, and therapy animals are bringing comfort and joy to sick patients, young and old. Workplaces are also increasingly becoming “pet-friendly” by instituting policies that are sensitive to pet ownership.
Introducing a pet to a new home may be well thought out or it may be a “spur-of-the-moment” decision. Regardless, pets must have what they need to be healthy, like regular veterinary care, love, and attention. Pets give so much in return and are more like family members than ever before.
The benefits of having pets are plentiful. Pets help us live longer, happier, and healthier lives mentally and physically. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) compiles the latest information on the positive health effects of companion animals and has done many research studies that make the case for adding a pet to a household or workplace. Let’s talk about those benefits.
Better Mental Health
May is Mental Health Month. According to HABRI’s survey of pet owners, the majority have personal experience with the health benefits of pets:
- 74 percent of pet owners reported mental health improvements from pet ownership.
- 75 percent of pet owners reported that a friend’s or family member’s mental health improved from pet ownership.
The scientific research that supports the human-animal bond – or the mutually beneficial relationship between people and pets – for better mental health indicates that pets can make a difference for those facing mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, loneliness and stress.
Pets can contribute to positive mental health through emotional work and practical work. The emotional work can be described as alleviating worries, stress, and depression. You may have noticed that your pet wastes no time noticing and springing into action when you are upset or sad. Their intuition is what makes them great support and therapy animals, and animal-assisted therapy is effective in treating PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Then there’s the practical work that comes with caring for a pet. This means making sure their individual needs are met. Developing a daily routine of walks and feeding times can help people with mental health conditions feel a sense of purpose that affects other areas of their lives.
Pets and Mental Health
A 2016 HABRI study explored the role of pets in the social networks of people managing a longterm mental health problem.
Pets alleviate stress.
Owning a pet is linked to significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure in response to stress. In one study of cardiovascular reactivity to stress, those with pets had much lower resting baseline heart rates and blood pressure and faster recovery of these parameter to baseline and cessation of stress.
Pets improve mood & fight depression.
According to a HABRI survey of family physicians, 87 percent said their patients’ mood or outlook had improved as a result of pet ownership. Another study found that pets, by serving as a distraction from typical symptoms and encouraging activity, helped people cope with depression and other long-term mental health issues. Research has also demonstrated that pet owners laugh more – one study found that those with dogs or cats laughed more on a daily basis, including reactions to their pet and spontaneous laughter, compared to non-pet owners.
Pets reduce loneliness.
Pets can provide people with the kind of social support that can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. In older adults, the role of pet ownership may provide a sense of purpose and meaning, reducing loneliness and increasing socialization. These benefits may also increase resilience in older adults against mental health disorders, which may positively influence their mental health outcomes. A study involving 217 people found that pet owners were less lonely, exhibited greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, were more conscientious, were more socially outgoing, and had healthier relationship styles than non-owners.
Pets contribute to a stronger sense of identity.
Pets were found to contribute to a stronger sense of identity in pet owners with mental health conditions, including reducing negative perceptions of a mental health condition or diagnosis.
Pets provide a sense of security and routine.
Pets can provide a sense of security and routine in the relationship, which reinforces stable cognition.
Pets provide a distraction and disruption from distressing symptoms.
This includes hearing voices, suicidal thoughts, rumination, and facilitating routine and exercise for those who care for them.
Better Physical Health
Every little bit counts when it comes to physical health benefits, and those daily walks really add up for dog owners. Since they are more likely to meet the criteria for regular moderate exercise, dog parents have lower instances of obesity.
Your heart is one of the most measurable places to see the full benefits of pet ownership. Just the presence of animals has significant impacts on blood pressure, with pet owners having a lower resting blood pressure than people without pet babies.
Cat parents aren’t left out of the healthy heart race. A feline friend in your home reduces your risk of death due to cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attacks. According to the HABRI, people without cats have a 40 percent higher relative risk of heart attack than noncat owners.
Pets and Physical Health
- Approximately 60 percent of dog walkers met the criteria for regular moderate and/or vigorous leisure time physical activity compared to about 45 percent for nondog owners and dog owners who did not walk their dog.
- In a study of adults over the age of 50 with mildly elevated blood pressure, the presence of a pet had a significant impact on blood pressure, with dog ownership being associated with lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure compared to people who did not own pets.
- A study of over 2,400 cat owners concluded there was a significantly lower relative risk for death due to cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attack, compared to non-owners during a 20year followup.
Healthier Aging Process
Research has shown that older adults get social and emotional support from their pets that combats loneliness and depression. Aside from promoting exercise and reducing stress, pets also assist in the treatment of longterm diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Pet companionship is also key for hospital and cancer patients. When coupled with animal-assisted activities, pets help patients with pain management and in interactions with doctors and nurses. Those patients also responded better to treatments and reported improvements in their quality of life.
Pets and Aging
- Results of a study of older adults who live alone suggest that pet ownership may act as a buffer against loneliness.
- Results of a one-year study that examined the impact of animalassisted therapy (AAT) on patients with chronic pain demonstrated that, following AAT, patients reported reduced pain, discomfort, and stress. Additionally, stress among nursing staff was found to decrease significantly following AAT.
- A study of older adults with mental illness living in longterm care facilities concluded that AAT reduced depressive symptoms and improved cognitive function.
When we look at the data on mental health, physical health, and aging, it’s clear that pets contribute much to people’s lives in these areas, as well as being the loving companions we’ve always known them to be.
Findings of a recent study that focused on pet-friendly workplace policies identified benefits that include improved employee productivity, retention, enhancing collaboration and improving workplace morale.
A recent study conducted by Nationwide, in partnership with the HABRI, reveals that 90 percent of employees in pet friendly workplaces feel highly connected to their company’s mission; fully engaged with their work; and willing to recommend their employer to others. In contrast, less than 65 percent of employees in non-pet friendly workplaces made the same claims.
Additionally, more than three times as many employees at pet friendly workplaces report a positive working relationship with their boss and co-workers, significantly more than those in non-pet friendly environments. Moreover, these employees are more likely to stay with a company long term. The findings held true even among non-pet owners in both pet friendly and non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 91 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company feel engaged with their work versus 65 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 83 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company feel their work is rewarding and exciting versus 46 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 88 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company would recommend their place of employment to others versus 51 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 88 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company plan to stay with the company for the next 12 months versus 73 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 72 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company would decline a job offer with another company at similar pay versus 44 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 91 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company feel the company supports their physical health and wellness versus 59 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 91 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company feel the company supports their mental well-being versus 53 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 52 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company report a positive working relationship with their supervisor versus 14 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 53 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company report a positive working relationship with their co-workers versus 19 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
- 85 percent of employees who work for a pet friendly company reported they rarely miss a day of work for well-being or recuperation versus 77 percent who work in non-pet friendly workplaces.
Educating pet owners and non-pet owners alike on the science behind the human-animal bond maximizes the benefits of a pet-inclusive workplace.
Sources: habri.org; onehealth.org
About the Author
I no longer have an autoimmune disease and have been cancer free for more than ten years. I attribute much of this restorative success to the body's ability to self-regulate, my positive attitude and commitment to making specific lifestyle changes, being disciplined in the process and continuously learning/studying. I respect and understand that a one size fits all approach to health or medicine is the wrong approach and can leave many harmed. I am currently a student enrolled in a holistic nutrition program and anticipate successfully completing the program and becoming a Certified Holistic Nutritional Consultant (C.H.N.C) in Alberta, soon. In good health, Mélanie.
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