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5 Ways Your Best (Pet) Friend Can Improve Your Health

Jun 8, 2021 By One Medical + Bond Vet
Woman outside holding small white dog

As a pet parent, you likely already have a sense of how much your life has improved because of your furry friend. Between pets’ unconditional love and companionship, it’s no wonder many people consider them members of the family. But science shows that your fur baby may offer more than just cuddles and company.

Research has found that owning a pet can positively impact both your physical and mental health. “From emotional well-being to physical health, dogs and cats have a measurable, positive effect on us,” says Bond Vet Medical Director Stephanie Austin. “This positive effect is especially important during stressful life events, particularly when we are faced with our own health concerns. During these times, much-needed relief and comfort can be gained by spending time with your pet.” Here’s how:

1. Reduced stress and anxiety

There’s a reason why animals can become registered “emotional support” or “therapy” animals: it’s because they can actually improve your emotional well-being. “Research shows pets have a positive impact on our mental health,” says One Medical provider, Natasha Bhuyan, MD. “ I've had many patients get furry friends during the pandemic, and they often say their pet is one of the key reasons they were able to maintain their health and wellness.” Numerous studies have shown that interacting with animals can decrease cortisol (the body’s primary stress hormone) levels, reduce anxiety, and boost your overall mood. One study even found that just 10 minutes of petting a dog or cat significantly lowered cortisol levels. Meanwhile, playing with a pet has been shown to elevate levels of feel-good hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, boosting one’s sense of calm and happiness. These stress and anxiety-busting effects can be beneficial to anyone, but they may be especially valuable to adults with certain conditions such as PTSD. In one survey, for instance, 84% of PTSD patients reported a significant reduction in symptoms when paired with a service dog.

2. Improved heart health

Owning a pet has also been associated with better heart health. Several studies, for example, have linked pet ownership to lower blood pressure. This may be due to the calming effect pets have on their owner or the fact that pet owners tend to get more exercise, though more research is needed to understand the correlation. One study found that even petting a dog for just 15 minutes can lower blood pressure by 10%, while another noted a significant decrease in blood pressure among those merely in the presence of dogs without physical contact. Additionally, regularly walking or playing with pets has been shown to improve cholesterol levels, and potentially reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack, or cardiovascular disease, according to the CDC. Dog ownership in particular has been associated with decreased risk of heart disease, as well as a reduced risk of death from a heart attack.

3. Decreased feelings of loneliness

Your furry friend’s companionship shouldn’t be taken for granted. When you’re feeling isolated or lonely, your pet can provide a great sense of comfort, loyalty, and affection. In fact, according to a survey by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, 80% of pet owners reported feeling less lonely because of their pets. Likewise, another study found that those who had pets were less likely to report being lonely. Caring for another living being can give you a sense of purpose and help you feel wanted, needed, socially fulfilled, and happier overall.

Pets can also be a great way to meet new people and may encourage you to be more social. You may stop to chat with other dog walkers or neighbors while out on a walk or at a dog park. Or maybe you’ll meet other pet owners at a training class, pet store, or even on an online forum. Either way, your furry companion can be a great ice breaker or conversation starter.

4. Increase exercise and physical activity

It’s well known that regular physical activity plays an important role in both your physical and mental health. Thankfully, most pets can help keep you active. Many pets (dogs especially) require regular exercise, which in turn can get you moving. The most obvious example here is dog owners who need to walk their dog each day. Research has found that dog owners are more likely to reach their fitness goals and meet daily physical activity guidelines than those without canine companions. They have also been found to get better quality exercise, meaning walking at faster speeds or getting their heart rate up higher, than those who walk or run on their own. But it’s not just dogs who require exercise; even indoor pets can help you stay active. Cats need playtime each day and you can get in some exercise yourself by dragging a string around the house and letting them chase after it. Even a few minutes caring for a pet’s basic needs (providing clean food and water bowls, or cleaning a litter box for a cat or habitat for a reptile, bird, fish, or rodent, for example) may provide motivation to get out of bed earlier and continue being active.

5. Decreased allergies and other benefits in children

In addition to some of the benefits mentioned above, having pets may help your child ward off future allergies. Some research has found that the more exposure children have to animals, including dogs or cats, as infants, the less likely they are to develop allergies, asthma, and eczema later in childhood. Additionally, there’s some evidence that being around pets during childhood may lead to development of a stronger immune system. This may be due to the diverse set of microbes and germs these animals (dogs in particular) bring inside or expose us to. Pets can also help children—particularly children with autism—with confidence and improved social interactions.

Pet Ownership Has Reduced Healthcare Costs for Many Pet Parents

A report from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) indicates that pet ownership has saved the U.S. $11.7 billion in healthcare costs, further adding to a growing body of evidence that pets can play a huge role in our health. So while your health may not be the sole reason to get a pet, it can be a major added benefit. Be sure to give your fur baby an extra cuddle today, and thank them for all they do!

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

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