6 Ways Our Pets Help Their Humans' Health, From Exercise to Diseases Detection
We're here to tell you to get a dog or cat—not just for the love, snuggles, and never-ending fun, but for your health.
In the process of us caring for them, pets actually aid our mental and physical health. They provide routine, exercise, and no shortage of happy distractions from … well, you know … *gestures at basically everything.*
This is, in part, why we saw millions of people adopt pets at the height of the pandemic, when many of us were stuck at home alone.
"We know mental health problems were worse than ever during the pandmeic. For some people, their existing symptoms got worse," Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist, and best-selling author tells Daily Paws. "For other people, new symptoms emerged. So I'm not surprised that many people went out and said, 'You know, I want someone to talk to that's not over a Zoom meeting.'"
Morin is also the editor-in-chief of our sister site Verywell Mind, which recently issued a survey that found that 47 percent of respondents currently in therapy spend time with their pets to help their mental health.
She described such a high number as unexpected, but because pets can help us in so many ways, it's not a shocking surprise. Here are just a few health benefits pets can provide:
Dogs need to walk; cats need to play—and you're the willing partner for all of it. Exercise comes with myriad health benefits—disease prevention, weight control, and even improving your mood—and it's much more fun to do it with your pet rather than all by yourself.
"You kind of start to forget about the stressors of the day and just focus on how happy your pet is to be out there playing Frisbee or with a tennis ball or whatever," says Mike Bricker, an operations director for sanctuary animal care at Best Friends Animal Society.
Reducing stress goes hand in hand (hand in paw?) with exercise. Walking your dog can both reduce the "stress hormone" (cortisol) while increasing the "feel-good hormone" called oxytocin. Heck, even simply petting a dog for several minutes can lower your cortisol levels.
Lowering Blood Pressure
Of course, getting regular exercise with your furry friends can help reduce blood pressure, but pets can also have a "calming effect" on their owners. You can get that benefit from simply petting a dog every so often, but evidence suggests pet owners overall have lower blood pressure than non-pet owners.
Boosting Your Mood
Pets are your non-judging, always-listening constant companions who offer unconditional love. They're always at home, ready to spend time with you no matter how bad of a day you have had. They're the ultimate mood-boosters, often easing anxiety, depression, or loneliness.
"There's something about coming home from work and being greeted by a dog or a cat that makes you feel good when you walk in the door," Morin says.
Plus, the daily routine of feeding, playing, and exercising can give pet owners a "sense of purpose," she says.
Dogs and cats can provide comfort to us even in the most challenging times—of which there's no shortage these days. It's why therapy dogs can be such a help to people who've experienced trauma. They're present to listen, get pets, and distract you from your troubles or trauma.
"The dogs really do make a difference," a therapy dog team leader told Daily Paws last year.
Detecting Health Problems
Lately, dogs have become extremely good at detecting COVID-19 cases. Some also serve as ace diabetic alert dogs, letting their owners know when their blood sugar gets too high or too low. Because of their extremely powerful noses, they can even detect some types of cancer.
Is this something every dog can do? Probably not. But it still rules.
Is a Pet Right for You?
Dogs and cats are fabulous, and we'd love them even if they didn't help our own well-being. If you're considering adopting a dog or cat, your first step is to consider the implications of caring for a pet—one you'll probably have for many years.
"Are you ready to take on this responsibility?" Bricker says.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before bringing your new buddy home:
- Can you afford to care for a new pet—including potential medical expenses?
- Does your lifestyle accommodate pet ownership? Will you be around enough so they can live a full life?
- Are you better suited to volunteer with animal welfare organizations rather than owning a pet yourself? Is fostering dogs or cats a better option?
There are lots of ways to take advantage of the health benefits of pets—even if you don't live with a pet day in and day out.