In the United States alone, 65 percent of households own a pet, which translates into 79.7 million families. The vast majority of those pets are cats and dogs (163.6 million total; 85.8 and 77.8 million, respectively), with an additional several million small mammals and birds also enjoying pet status (and countless fish). If you are or have ever been a pet parent, especially to a dog or cat, you can probably list several benefits of such a relationship, with companionship being high if not at the top of the list.
But our four-legged, feathered and even finned friends also are good for our health—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Most people name having therapy dogs as a way animals help people with health issues, and the many services they provide are truly outstanding. These special canines, along with horses, run-of-the-mill alley cats, adopted shelter dogs, pet rabbits, chatty parrots and aquarium fish can provide health advantages for humans in multiple ways.
1. PROVIDE PAIN RELIEF.
Therapy dogs have a positive effect on patients’ level of pain after procedures, such as total joint arthroplasty, or more generally, as seen among people with fibromyalgia who spend time with a therapy dog.
2. INCREASE PHYSICAL ACTIVITY.
Dog parents tend to get more exercise than people who don’t have a dog—and that extra exercise isn’t just from walking their canines. Analysis of data from 5,900 individuals, of whom 2,170 had dogs, found that 60 percent of pet parents who walked their dogs regularly met the minimum government requirements for exercise. In fact, dog walkers—compared with people who didn’t have a dog—got an average of 30 minutes more exercise per week, including activities beyond walking dogs.
3. IMPROVE COGNITIVE FUNCTION.
One population that has experienced good results with pet therapy is residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. One example is a study from the University of Maryland, where pet therapy was shown to help preserve and enhance the function of residents with cognitive impairment.
4. RELIEVE STRESS AND BOOST MOOD.
Cats, dogs, rabbits, birds, and even fish have been found to help relieve stress and enhance mood. A recent article in the Washington Post reported on research from the National Marine Aquarium noting that “Maybe it’s the sluggishly moving fish, maybe it’s the slowly waving seaweed. Whatever it is, aquariums have the power to reduce stress, new research has found.”
In today’s high-tech world, you don’t even need to be in the same room with an animal to reap the health benefits. The authors of a study from Indiana University Media School reported that people who viewed cat videos felt less sad, anxious, or annoyed and more positive after they watched the videos online than before they saw them.
5. ASSIST PEOPLE WITH AUTISM.
Research has shown that pairing pets with individuals who have autism can significantly improve a number of factors, including socialization skills, eye contact, and positive affect, and decrease negative habits such as whining, crying, and frowning. For some children with autism, assigning them a full-time therapy dog can dramatically improve their lives as well as those of their parents and siblings.
6. FACILITATE READING AMONG KIDS.
All across North America, there are programs where children and dogs meet for a reading session: kids reading to dogs. Experts have found that children who are having difficulty with reading or who resist reading do much better when they pair up with a dog, who offers only unconditional love and patience while being told a story. This approach also can benefit the animals. At the Missouri Humane Society, for example, kids read to shy shelter dogs, which has been shown to help the dogs become better socialized, making them more adoptable.
7. IMPROVE CHILDREN’S EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT.
Among children who have no siblings, having a pet can help them develop greater self-esteem, improved empathy, and more participation in physical and social activities, according to the authors of a recent Canadian study.
8. BENEFIT HEART HEALTH.
A scientific statement from the American Heart Association, published in the journal “Circulation,” reported on an evaluation of studies of pet ownership and cardiovascular disease (CVD). The authors concluded that “there is a substantial body of data that suggests that pet ownership is associated with a reduction in CVD risk factors [e.g., heart rate, blood pressure] and increased survival in individuals with established CVD.” Another study found that when researchers compared the effect of a hypertensive drug (lisinopril) and pet ownership on blood pressure, the pets won paws down. Even though lisinopril lowered resting blood pressure in people with and without pets, individuals with a pet showed significantly lower response to mental stress than people who took lisinopril only.
9. HELP DETECT ILLNESS.
Experts have been discovering more and more that certain dogs can be employed to detect or “sniff out” diseases and conditions, including diabetes, epileptic seizures, and even some types of cancer. In cases of seizures, dogs (so-called seizure dogs) may be used to help warn patients of an impending event, while canines who have demonstrated an ability to uncover cancers could be used in diagnostics.
10. IMPROVE NEUROMUSCULAR SKILLS.
Horses are a key player in this area of health improvement. Known as hippotherapy, horses are used to improve the coordination, posture, and strength in children and adults who have neuromuscular disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and brain injuries.
11. IMPROVE THE LIVES OF PEOPLE WITH PHYSICAL CHALLENGES.
Specially trained assistance dogs are often the first ones that come to mind when we talk about how animals can help human health. Technically there are three types of assistance dogs: guide dogs (for visually impaired and blind individuals), hearing dogs (for deaf and hard of hearing), and service dogs (for individuals with other disabilities). These extraordinary canines are paired with individuals who can then enjoy more freedom of movement, safety, and well-being.
Whether it’s a specially trained service dog, a beloved pet cat, an aquarium of fish, or a therapy horse, animals contribute to and support our health in both obvious and subtle ways. These examples are just a sample of the many ways animals are good for our health.