How pets improve our health

The secret benefits of your furry friends.
Published December 23, 2018

Did you know that on top of being much-loved furry members of our families, pets can boost mental and physical wellbeing?

“Any pet owner will attest to the joy that comes with owning a dog or cat,” says Rebecca Greenstein, owner and chief veterinarian of Kleinburg Veterinary Hospital in Ontario.

“The amazing thing is that the benefits of living with a pet are not just anecdotal, they’ve been backed up by science. An extensive body of research has proven that owning a pet improves our physical and mental health in ways we never imagined,” she says.

“In a scientific sense, we are only just starting to discover the healing power of animals. Studies have demonstrated that spending time with pets boosts immune function, lowers stress hormones, reduces physical pain, fights depression, improves PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] symptoms, and even adds years to your life.”

In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the benefits of having a pet include:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol levels
  • Lower triglyceride levels
  • Lower feelings of loneliness
  • More opportunities for exercise
  • More opportunities for outdoor activities
  • More opportunities for socialization

Although some studies counter the notion that having pets helps our health, many experts still stand by it.

“Pets give us a sense of purpose and a sense of being needed. They serve as an anchor in our otherwise hectic lives,” says Bruce Silverman, a veterinarian at Village West Veterinary in Chicago.

“Pets are often a welcome emotional and psychological distraction from the many obligations that people deal with daily,” he adds. “The presence of pets has an immediate calming effect on most people, especially for those dealing with stress.”

In her work, Courtney Glashow, LCSW owner and psychotherapist at Anchor Therapy in Hoboken, New Jersey, has seen the benefits of pets on our mental health first-hand.

“If someone is experiencing depression or anxiety, having a pet with them can greatly diminish their symptoms.”

For example, she explains, one symptom of depression is wanting to stay in bed and withdraw from other people.

“If you don’t leave your home, this can become detrimental to your health, you can lose your job, and it could impact your physical well-being. But if you have a dog at home, it is your responsibility to take care of them. This requires you to get out of bed, get dressed, feed your dog, and take him out for a walk more than once a day. This can actually benefit your mental and physical health.”

She adds, “Dogs and other pets can also provide emotional support by spending time with you, snuggling with you, and reminding you that you are needed.”

Another common example of how our pets can help us, Glashow explains, is with anxiety, such as due to a fear of flying. For situations like this, many people have Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) to help them.

“[As an ESA] your pet can come with you on the plane so that you feel less anxious,” she explains.

“There are many ways pets can help your mental health, which in turn will overall help your physical health. You can talk to a psychotherapist about how to make your pet an ESA so you can have them with you on a plane or in your home. There will need to be evidence that you have a mental health disorder and your pet diminishes your mental health symptoms.”