Why having a pet is good for your health

Marie Carter, Editor of Pets Magazine, explores how the furrier members of our families help our minds and bodies 

If, like me, you have ever arrived home to be greeted by a licking, loving pooch, you know that pets can help lower our stress levels. Studies have shown that cuddling a pet, most likely a cat or a dog, releases the "cuddle chemical" oxytocin in both human and pet. This miraculous little chemical has a calming and soothing effect that leads to the development of a strong bond between pet and owner. This bond can be as intense as that in many human relationships, and may confer similar health benefits. 

So can pets make us healthier?

My dog Sophie, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, gives and takes affection so wonderfully because hers is a pure emotion. Dogs are the only species that, like a human child, runs to its human when it is frightened, anxious or just pleased to see us. It is also the only animal, aside from other humans, that actively seeks out eye contact with people, and truly wants to be with us.

Cats can also exhibit attachment and love to their people, but their bond is often more at arms length. There are the inevitable exceptions - a cat-owning friend has a wonderfully affectionate feline who loves nothing more than cuddling up on her owner’s lap. In the main however the old saying applies that cats have servants and dogs have masters or mistresses.

There are numerous health benefits of owning a pet. These range from improved cardiovascular health to a reduced risk of asthma and allergic rhinitis in children exposed to pet allergens, and better overall physical and psychological wellbeing.

The cardiovascular and lowered blood pressure benefits come in part from the increased exercise taken on a daily basis by the dog owner – when you need to exercise a dog, you do, but when it’s just you needing to exercise, you often make excuses. Venturing outside for a walk with your pooch can also lead to increased social interaction and a sense of connection with your community, which can improve mood and reduce stress levels. If you live alone, pets by their very company can help stave off loneliness and encourage feelings of responsibility and maturity in caring for another being. 

Pets have also been found to lower the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies, leading to a calmer approach to life and thus positively impacting our blood pressure. Simply stroking a pet can have health benefits. If you own a pet, you’re also less likely to suffer from clinical depression.

No studies have found significant social or economic differences between pet owners and those with no pets that detracts from these positive findings. There are wonderful organisations out there like PAT Dogs that train dogs and people to take their pets into hospitals and nursing homes to provide some of the joy and health benefits pets bring. Recently, I visited my boyfriend’s father’s nursing home with my little dog Sophie and witnessed at first hand the sheer pleasure that contact with a pet can bring. Not only did she cheer a man in the throes of mental decline, but also provided comfort and joy to the other elderly people she met. 

As well as lower blood pressure and cholesterol, dog owners suffer fewer minor ailments such as colds. Dogs can also act as "early warning" to detect an approaching epileptic seizure or sniff out disease. Medical Detection Dogs is an amazing organisation that trains dogs to help people with life-threatening medical conditions such as diabetes. They are currently being trained to detect cancer. Dogs are used because their sense of smell is around 10,000 times more acute than ours. 

Pets can also teach those with learning difficulties or autism to engage and interact with the outside world. There are numerous case studies of children who, before getting a pet, had been locked inside their own little world, uncommunicative and cut off. After forming a bond with their pet, which is usually a cat or a dog, parents find that almost by miracle their child emerges into the outside world; they engage and show levels of emotion not previously experienced. That is the miracle of pet ownership.

There is the inevitable downside to pet ownership. The death of a pet can lead to the same, or similar, feelings of loss that we experience when we lose a human member of our family. Last year, Pets Magazine launched the first ever National Pet Remembrance Day on Sunday 5 July, 2015 with the Arty Lobster 3D pet sculpture service and encouraged people to commemorate the day remembering lost pets.

It provoked an outpouring ofgriefthat we tend to traditionally associate with losing a human loved one. That is the negative side of pet ownership. The more we bring our pets into our lives and let them help us recover from illness, stave off anxiety or depression, and become our very best four-legged friends, the more acutely their inevitable loss will be felt. While they are with us for their sadly too short lives, they can nevertheless convey a multitude of health benefits.

Marie Carter is the Editor and Publisher of Pets Magazine. Follow Pets Magazine on Twitter or on Facebook.

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