When you come home to a purr or wagging tail at the end of a stressful day, the sudden wave of calm you feel isn't just your imagination. Research suggests that your fluffy friend truly is good for your physical and mental health. "Pets often provide unconditional acceptance and love and they're always there for you," says Gary A. Christenson, MD, chief medical officer at Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota. "There is a bond and companionship that makes a big difference in mental health," not to mention the extra exercise you get from walks and playtime. Read on to learn the surprising ways your pet can boost your health.
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Pets may lower your cholesterol
If you have a dog, those daily walks are helping to keep your cholesterol in check, says Rebecca A. Johnson, PhD, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. Plus, a survey by the Australian National Heart Foundation revealed that people who own pets, especially men, tend to have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
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Pets help relieve stress
Simply being in the same room as your pet can have a calming effect. "A powerful neurochemical, oxytocin, is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy," says Johnson. "It's also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a hormone." Through her research with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Johnson has witnessed the powerful effects of animals. "One veteran couldn't leave his home without his wife until we placed a dog with him and in less than a week he was able to go around his town," she says.
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Pets may reduce your blood pressure
It's a win-win: petting your pooch or kitty brings down blood pressure while pleasing your pet. Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo discovered that in people already taking medication for hypertension, their blood pressure response to stress was cut by half if they owned a cat or dog.
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Pets boost your fitness
A dog is the best companion for a stroll—even better than a friend. Johnson—co-author of Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound—led a study at the University of Missouri that found that dog walkers improved their fitness more than people who walked with other people. A separate study found that dog owners walked 300 minutes a week on average, while people who didn't own dogs walked just 168 minutes a week. And a study in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health found that not only did dog owners , they were also 54% more likely to meet the recommended levels of physical activity.
Lower cholesterol, stress, and blood pressure levels combined with increased fitness may add up to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. That's a theory supported by the American Heart Association. In 2013, the AHA reviewed numerous studies examining the and concluded that having a furry friend, particularly a dog, is associated with a reduction in risk and increased survival among patients.
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Pets may prevent allergies in children
If you had a pet as a kid, you may be in luck. In a study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy, children who were exposed to pets before they were six months old were less likely to develop allergic diseases, hay fever, and eczema as they got older. "In the first year of life, babies who are exposed to dogs in the household are more likely not to have allergies, asthma, and fewer upper respiratory infections," says Johnson. "If exposed at an early age to dander and allergens, we may be less reactive to them over time." And kids who grow up around farm animals, dogs, or cats typically have stronger immune systems and a reduced risk of developing asthma or eczema.
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Pets relieve depression
Pets can provide social support for their owners, who tend to have better overall wellbeing than non-owners, according to a study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And a large review of studies by the British Psychological Society found that dogs especially promote therapeutic and psychological wellbeing, particularly lowering stress levels and boosting self-esteem, as well as feelings of autonomy and competence. "The calming presence and the social bond that pets bring can be very powerful," says Dr. Christenson. "Animals give something to focus on instead of the negative thoughts a depressed person is prone to have. When a pet pays attention to you, they're giving you unconditional love and acceptance."
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Pets ease chronic pain
Having critters around the house can help distract from chronic pain. "Petting your animal releases endorphinsthe same hormones that give a runner's highand they are powerful pain relievers," says Johnson. "That's been demonstrated in hospitalized patients who had a visit from an animal and reported less pain simply from one visit." In fact, Loyola University Chicago researchers found that people who underwent joint replacement surgery used less pain medication when they received pet therapy. And one American Journal of Critical Care study found that patients hospitalized for heart failure had improved cardio functioning when visited by a dog. The simple task of caring for a pet can also be a positive distraction for people in pain.
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Pets improve relationships
Young adults with a deep bond to their pets felt more connected in their relationships and to their communities than those who did not have animals in a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Science. They were more likely to take on leadership roles and tended to be more confident and empathetic; Johnson says it's reasonable to believe that this would be the case with older adults as well.
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Pets monitor health changes
Pets are very sensitive to their owners' behavior, which can be helpful for those who suffer from diabetes. Some animals can sense plummeting blood sugar levels before their owners can. "When diabetics get low blood sugar they get ketoacidosis (when they can't use sugar as a fuel source), which changes the smell of their breath, and trained dogs can pick up on that scent change," explains Christopher Buckley, director of veterinary medicine at the Human Society of West Michigan in Kalamazoo. "It's not in the innate ability of every dog, but they can be trained to do that." Need a furry minder? There are several organizations that specifically train dogs to aid diabetics, including , , and .
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Pets boost your self-esteem
"Pets are completely non-judgmental, don't have an agenda, take you at face value, and they don't care what you look like or how you behavethey love unconditionally, and that boots self-esteem," says Johnson. "Confidence can be improved by the fact that dogs love you no matter what, and to the same extent, cats are very loving to their owners." Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that pet owners had higher self-esteem, as well as feelings of belonging and meaningful existence than non-owners.
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Pets bring your family closer together
Whether you make your kids take turns walking the dog or it's always your job to feed the cat, research has proven having a pet is good for the whole family. "Pets can be a very important bridge between family members," says Johnson. "Often grandchildren have a hard time talking to a grandparent, so pets can be a natural bridge, providing a convenient and easy topic of conversation." Additionally, children often have their first death experience through animals, which is a teachable moment. "Pets can provide the ultimate learning experiencekids learn how to treat others with kindness and caring, and they teach responsibility," Johnson explains.