Health Benefits of Pets

Pets come with an amazing range of health benefits. Here’s how your furry friends and other animals can help with everything from improving your mood to supporting heart health.
Published April 4, 2022
The Joys of Pet Ownership

Having a pet can bring immediate joy and unconditional love into your home. There’s nothing quite like snuggling up to your furry friend after a long day, and they bring companionship for everyone from young children to older adults.

But science tells us that the benefits of pet ownership extend far beyond just shared love between humans and animals. In fact, pets can support our physical and mental health too.

You don’t just need a dog or a cat to reap the health benefits of having a pet. A rabbit is great for people with limited space or who are allergic to other animals. Birds can provide social interaction, and lizards or other reptiles can make for exotic companions. Even a tank full of colourful fish can provide health benefits too.

How Do Pets Help Our Health?

Owning a pet can provide numerous benefits for overall health. Here are some of the key benefits that come from owning a pet:

Make You More Active. Having a pet, particularly a dog, can increase opportunities for exercise and help you get outside to enjoy fresh air. In one study, researchers found that dog owners tended to be more physically active than those without a dog. Looking at questionnaires and activity monitors from almost 700 participants (with about one-third owning a dog), the results showed that dog owners spent about 300 minutes per week walking their dogs, compared to those without dogs who spent about 100 minutes per week walking. For those that have the time, financial resources, and desire to take on the responsibility of pet ownership, dogs can help motivate you to get outside for a walk when you might otherwise not want to.

Support Heart Health. Thanks to the boost in physical activity that you get by walking and playing with pets, numerous studies have shown that owning a pet may reduce the risk of heart disease and help lower blood pressure. Several studies have shown that dog owners have lower blood pressure compared to those who do not own a dog. In addition to the increased exercise that comes from daily walks, this may be attributed to the calming effect of pets. In fact, studies show that when someone pets a dog, their blood pressure is reduced. This same calming effect also helps people handle stress. People with dogs have less cardiovascular reactivity during periods of stress, which means that their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly, lessening the overall effects of stress on the body.

Improve Your Mood. Anyone who owns a pet knows how much they can contribute to your happiness. In fact, pet ownership is beneficial for overall mental health, as their companionship and comforting presence can prevent feelings of loneliness and alleviate social isolation, particularly for individuals who live or frequently spend time alone. For someone dealing with anxiety or depression, having a pet can provide structure to your daily life as you take care of your pet’s basic needs by providing food, water, and exercise if needed. Pets can also be helpful for improving your mood as you grow older. In one study looking at adults over the age of 65, researchers found that pets provided their owners with companionship, a sense of purpose and meaning, and reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Impact Allergies and the Microbiome. If you have young children, having a pet around can be beneficial for their health. It is thought that pet exposure in early life may positively alter the gut microbiota of children, which refers to the type of bacteria that naturally live in the digestive tract. In one Canadian study, researchers found that children exposed in early life (before birth and up to three months after) to dogs, cats, and other furry animals, experienced a significant increase in beneficial gut bacteria. These bacteria, known as Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, have each previously been linked to a reduced risk of childhood allergies and obesity, respectively. The theory behind this is that exposure to dirt and bacteria in early life, including that which exists on a pet’s fur or paws, can help create immunity early in life. In fact, the more dogs or cats a child lives with during infancy, the lower their risk for developing allergies, asthma, hay fever, and eczema, in later childhood.