MEN'S HEALTH ∙ 4 minutes read

Benefits of pets: 4 unexpected ways that pets can improve your health

By Emily Cameron | Medically reviewed by Dr Jaskirt Matharu

They live in your home rent-free, they constantly demand your attention, they wake you up every morning with a sloppy kiss to the face, but you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yep, we’re talking about pets. 

Whether you’re an animal person or not, science tells us that having a four-legged friend in your life can come with a number of health benefits. The term ‘zooeyia’ refers to the positive benefits to human health from interacting with animals, and in honour of National Pet Month, we thought we’d take a look at the paw-sitives to pet ownership. 

1. Pets at home: owning a pet helps reduce feelings of loneliness

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, with its subsequent lockdowns and restrictions, plenty of the UK population have felt the strain on their mental health. Feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anxiety have been amplified as our normal social lives have been disrupted like never before. 

The University of York conducted a study at the beginning of the first lockdown in the UK, looking at how human-animal relationships can help with feelings of loneliness. A huge 86.5% of participants said that having an animal helped them cope emotionally during COVID-19, with 94.9% of pet owners agreeing that they couldn’t imagine being without their companion during lockdown. 

But this isn’t new news. In 2013, a study of pet ownership in older primary care adults demonstrated the power our furry friends have, with pet owners 36% less likely than non-pet owners to report feelings of loneliness. 

Clearly, having pets at home is a tremendous help for people who would have otherwise been alone. But the benefits of owning a pet don’t stop there. They get even more unique and surprising from here, so keep reading.

2. Dog walking comes with plenty of perks

Most pets, especially dogs, need regular exercise to stay healthy - much like humans. In fact, research shows that you’re four times more likely to meet physical activity guidelines if you own a dog.

But it’s not just your step count that will reap the benefits of regular walks with your dog - you’ll feel the rewards mentally, too. Research tells us that exercising outdoors, rather than indoors, is associated with greater feelings of revitalisation, increased energy levels, and decreased levels of tension, anger, confusion, and depression. 

And while you’re out walking your pet, the likelihood of you meeting, and befriending, other people (and pets) also increases; 40% of pet owners say they’ve met people who have provided them with some form of social support through their dogs. 

3. Pets and mental health: interacting with pets can reduce anxiety

If you can’t have a pet of your own, the good news is that even just regularly interacting with animals could help reduce your anxiety levels. The very act of petting a dog releases a hormone called oxytocin into the body. Oxytocin is known as the “attachment hormone” or the “love hormone”, and is associated with the warm, fuzzy feeling of bonding with your pet. 

In fact, dogs are so good at supporting our mental health that they’re often used in animal-assisted therapy (also known as pet therapy) - a type of therapy that incorporates animals as a major part of the treatment. One study found that using pets as therapy (specifically dogs) was effective in improving depression symptoms in elderly people with dementia, depression, and psychosis. 

Another study showed that just 12 minutes spent with a therapy dog reduced anxiety in patients with heart failure, while one other found that time spent with dogs - even over video - greatly reduced anxiety levels in university students.

4. Owning a pet could keep you in better health as you get older

An apple a day keeps the doctor away - but can the same be said for owning a pet? As it turns out, there have been a number of studies corresponding pet ownership with health benefits in older people, and research shows that people aged 65+ who own pets make fewer visits to the doctor each year than those who don’t own pets.  

The bottom line

The health benefits of owning a pet are numerous: they get you out and about, they keep you active, they add structure and routine to your life, and they could even keep you in better health as you age. But if you’re thinking of getting a new fluffy family member, just be sure to do so responsibly. While they might help look after you, you need to make sure you’re able to look after them, too.

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