Pets and your health

Faithful companions: pets and your health

Grooming, playing, socializing, or simply cuddling up after a long day: Pet owners have long cherished the joyful moments shared with their pets in daily life. But, as studies have shown, pet owners also reap additional benefits: from reducing the risk of depression and lowering blood pressure to aiding recovery after a heart attack, a furry companion can have positive effects on your health at any age!  

Why pets are positive

There’s no doubt that with pet ownership comes long-term responsibility. Providing food and shelter, and taking it to the vet for check-ups and when it’s ill are just some of the tasks pet owners have to fit into their schedules. Many pets also demand a daily dose of attention, whether it’s taking the dog out for a walk or stroking the cat behind its ears. However, there’s a lot of good in all this. The responsibilities that fall on, for instance, a dog owner – feeding it, letting it outside, taking it on walks, grooming it, among other things – create structure and establish a daily routine. And having routines like these can lead to reduced stress levels, which in turn contributes to lower blood pressure. But that’s not all. Simply stroking your dog or cat or being active through playing fetch or taking it for a walk can also reduce stress. Pets also have the ability to calm and soothe, and provide unconditional love and affection – all additional factors that have been shown to reduce stress. Especially if you live alone or spend a large part of the day by yourself while a spouse or flatmate is at work, a dog or cat to speak to, interact with and care for provides round- the- clock companionship. A pet can even ease the feeling of loneliness many people in isolated situations experience. How? An animal forces them to assume responsibility and gives their lives a sense of meaning and purpose. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that the bond created between a master and his or her pet can have the same intensity as a relationship between two humans. Studies have shown that pet owners are also less likely to suffer from depression. One explanation is the increase in physical exercise. There are no excuses when Fido wants to go out for walks or play fetch in the park. On top of being good for physical health, exercise stimulates the production of mood-boosting, feel-good hormones in your brain such as serotonin and dopamine. These hormones ensure you feel calm and relaxed.

Good for your heart

Studies have shown that pet owners tend to have better overall cardiovascular health due to lower blood pressure, as already mentioned, and decreased levels of cholesterol and triglycerides. All these factors pay into an individual’s heart attack risk, so it’s safe to say that pets help keep your heart healthy and strong. Even people who have suffered a heart attack stand to benefit from the company of a cat or a dog. Research shows that heart attack patients with a pet recover better and have better prognoses, probably because a pet helps control or reduce stress.

Easily break the ice

Pets help combat feelings of isolation or loneliness and boost self-confidence by promoting social interaction and helping people establish a social network. When you go out with your dog, or perhaps even with your cat, your four-legged friend serves as a natural icebreaker, wherever you are. People on the street or in stores may stop to stroke your pet and you may find yourself easily making small talk or engaging in pleasant conversation. Over time you may run into the same people time and again, and, who knows, maybe a friendship will blossom. For dog owners, a guaranteed place to run into like-minded individuals is at the dog park. Just like parents at the playground can always talk with other parents about child-re-lated topics, it’s easy to discuss dog-related topics – breed, name, age, favourite places for walks – with other dog owners. Pet clubs and pet training courses are also excellent ways to meet people while you teach your pet a new trick or two.

A companion for all ages

For a child or teen, having a pet brings great joy to life while also teaching responsibility and accountability from a young age. When accompanied by an adult, younger children can help feed a pet and clean up after mealtimes, help with bathing and grooming, and join in for a walk. Older children around aged 10 and above can accomplish many tasks alone, though feeding a dog should always be supervised to ensure it does not nip. If a pet in your household is out of the question because of existing allergies, space limitations or other reasons, riding horses is an excellent alternative. A child can be involved in grooming the animal before and after riding, and being in the saddle has many therapeutic benefits of its own. Check with your local equestrian centre to enquire about the possibilities. Exposure to pets can also foster healthy social and emotional development in children. Caring for a pet demonstrates to children how to care for and be kind to others, lifelong skills that can be challenging to teach at a young age.

Picking a pet

For many, a dog or a cat is the obvious choice. But if you are neither a dog-person nor a cat-person, why not explore other options? A hamster, a bird or even fish: select the one that’s best for your personal situation and will bring you the most joy every day. If you are uncertain, take time to inform yourself about different kinds of pets and the responsibilities and time commitment demanded on the owner. Ask at a pet store, research online or check out a book on the subject at the local library. Current pet owners can also be good resources, so ask around your neighbourhood or visit the park for an afternoon and speak to the people there about their animals.