As the proud owner of two amazing dogs named Solomon and Sheba, I’ve seen firsthand the benefits that their companionship offers. They have brought me joy in times of sadness, peace in moments of chaos, unconditional love, and courage that reminds me to tap into my strengths to overcome health problems related to an autoimmune condition.
Sheba is my 13-year-old rescue; she has fought cancer, had a toe amputated, and had her tail almost severed by a steel door, and she is currently battling hypothyroidism and hip dysplasia. Solomon is a 12-year-old rescue and deals with previous-abuse-related anxiety, a degenerative hip disease, and arthritis. My dogs are seniors now, and it’s my responsibility to make their golden years as comfortable and loving as possible. They have served me well over these years, and caring for them is a blissful experience.
Our bond has only grown stronger, due to the pandemic. Many of my friends who are pet owners have expressed the same sentiment – their pets have consistently offered lightheartedness and camaraderie during these stressful times. A few of my clients who live alone had planned to adopt a pet, and lockdown only accelerated that process.
Fostering or adopting a pet seemed to be the cure for feelings of loneliness and isolation that many were experiencing; in the first six months of the pandemic, the number of foster pets in U.S. homes increased by 8%! During emotionally challenging times, we can often count on pets to nourish this aspect of well-being.
Health Benefits of Owning and Caring for a Pet
As IIN graduates know, health is not just about the food on our plates ‒ health also depends on how much attention we’re paying to other areas of life, such as our environment, career, physical activity, and relationships…and not just with people!
These areas of life, called primary food, must be in balance for us to truly feel happy and healthy, and owning and caring for a pet is a great way to nourish our primary food.
Emotional Health Benefits
We can talk about the science behind the emotional benefits of owning a pet, such as reducing feelings of stress and anxiety, but oftentimes, one has to experience these benefits for themselves to actually believe them. A great example of this is a past client of mine who was going through a divorce. This stressful event impacted her sleep, which then contributed to mood swings and even more stress. She found that snuggling with her cat every night was tranquil and promoted better sleep, which helped relieve her daily mood swings.
Another great emotional benefit of owning and caring for a pet is creating community. Whether you take your canine friend to the dog park, join a Facebook group for owners of exotic fish, or start an Instagram page for your cat, interacting with other pet owners and sharing your experiences and concerns facilitates friendship, community, connection, and support.
This connection with others who have similar interests helps boost confidence and a sense of belonging, contributing to overall fulfillment and satisfaction in life. These feelings are very empowering and can help improve overall health.
Physical Health Benefits
So having a pet is linked with improved mental and emotional well-being, but what about your physical well-being? Several studies have shown that dog owners, in particular, have healthier hearts and lower blood pressure because of a dog’s therapeutic effect, which ultimately lowers stress and anxiety, as well as improved biomarkers that predict potential heart issues ‒ such as lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels ‒ because the owners exercise more.
Furthermore, in a 2019 meta-analysis, researchers found that among “nearly 4 million people in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom, dog ownership was associated with a 24% decreased chance of dying from any cause.” For those who had already experienced a heart-related event, such as a stroke or heart attack, this percentage increased to 31%!
While owning a dog lends itself to these kinds of physical health benefits, owning any kind of pet can also contribute to better physical health. We know that our emotional and mental states can directly influence our physical state. For example, having a pet means taking responsibility to keep that pet healthy and happy. This can help instill a sense of purpose, which research has shown affects physical health, such as reducing one’s risk of dying prematurely or experiencing a heart-related event.
Pets’ Positive Effect on Children
Children who grow up with pets will experience a multitude of benefits!
Research determined that “babies who grow up in homes with a pet ‒ namely, a dog or a cat ‒ are less likely to get sick than children who live pet-free,” due to being exposed to different types of germs that bolster a child’s immune system. This exposure can also help prevent children from developing allergies and asthma, though studies have shown that the exposure from living with pets must occur within the first year of life.
When it comes to a child’s behavior, having a pet, especially a dog, has been shown to be therapeutic. In a study on children with ADHD, researchers found that children who received canine-assisted intervention (CAI) “exhibited greater reductions in the severity of ADHD” and “significantly greater improvements in inhibitory control and attention, both important aspects of executive functioning.” Essentially, therapy dogs helped these children with their behavioral therapy so they retained more learning and improved their symptoms in the process.
Plus, as mentioned earlier, children who grow up with pets know they have a responsibility to care for them, which not only instills that sense of purpose but also teaches important skills ‒ from time management to empathy and awareness ‒ they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
It’s important to be in sync with your pets so you can identify any changes in behavior that can be a sign of physical illness or emotional stress. We are their caretakers; they depend on us to provide for them. They can’t tell us what’s happening, so we must be intuitive and attentive. This special connection forces us to be more mindful, present, and responsible. Ultimately, it teaches us to be selfless, because their health and safety fall solely on us, and evokes kindness and compassion.
There is a lot of research that points to the positive effects of owning a pet, but before you bring one home, do your research so that you’re fully aware of what to expect regarding behavior, potential health issues, and the cost to fulfill the daily needs of your companion.
Enjoy the experience of caring for your pet with unconditional love, and you will reap the rewards of a healthier lifestyle!