Many animal lovers swear they couldn’t live without their pets, and it turns out that having a furry companion in your life might actually influence your physical well-being. Here are ten of the most surprising and powerful health benefits of pets.
1. They might inhibit allergic reactions
While it was once thought that raising children around a pet promoted the development or worsening of allergies, contemporary studies suggest otherwise. There is compelling evidence that being around a furry or hairy animal (whether it’s a cat or a horse) is linked to a reduced risk of childhood asthma and allergies. The pediatrician who conducted the largest study on this topic found that testing the blood of babies at birth and at age one revealed that children from families with pets were only 19% likely to have markers of an allergic reaction (compared to 33% in the babies who weren’t around pets).
2. They keep your blood pressure under control
The Centers for Disease Control note that being around a trusted pet could help to bring your blood pressure levels down, especially if you are prone to hypertension. The connection is particularly well-established in the case of dogs and is thought to be linked to stress reduction, but even observing a tank full of fish seems to reduce muscle tension. Tests on pet owners show lower blood pressure readings whether at rest or taking part in a stressful task, so you could have healthier blood pressure even when you’re away from home.
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3. They may improve immune system function
The study mentioned above also showed that babies from homes with pets had greater levels of immune system chemicals that might indicate better resistance to disease. It is speculated that this benefit comes from exposure to the dirt, bacteria, and allergens commonly found on pets (especially dogs and other animals that spend time outdoors)
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4. They are good for Alzheimer’s patients
People with Alzheimer’s disease typically experience less anxiety if they have a companion animal in the home. Cats are widely thought to be the best candidates because they require less care. Nursing facilities for patients with more advanced forms of Alzheimer’s sometimes take advantage of this health benefit by periodically bringing in animals to provide meaningful, rewarding interactions.
5. They make it easier to tolerate chronic pain
If you have arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraines, or any other condition involving chronic pain, being with your pet can make your discomfort more bearable. Meanwhile, a study conducted by scientists from Loyola University also showed a connection between pet therapy and a reduced need for pain medication after major surgery. As mentioned above, pets reduce stress, and lower levels of anxiety are correlated with a reduction in pain.
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6. They cut your risk of death following a heart attack
One study involving over 400 adults who had previously experienced heart attacks discovered that those who owned dogs were more likely to still be alive the following year. Interestingly, this difference was present irrespective of heart attack severity. This remarkable result may relate to the fact that pet owners repeatedly test as having lower levels of LDL (i.e. ‘bad’) cholesterol, which is a significant risk factor for all forms of heart disease. However, scientists remain unsure whether pets are directly responsible for this lowered cholesterol or pet owners more commonly pursue lifestyles that keep cholesterol under control.
7. They are good for kids with ADHD or autism
Children with ADHD become more able to take responsibility and stick to routines after regular exposure to a pet. Meanwhile, those who are autistic may develop better self-expression and empathy as a result of becoming attached to a loving cat or dog.
8. They reduce the likelihood of depression
A wide range of studies confirms reduced rates of depression in pet owners. For example, one group of researchers examined depression in AIDS patients and found that strong attachment to a cat or dog was linked to a more positive outlook. Spending time with a beloved pet stimulates the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with pleasure and relaxation.
9. They are linked to reduced stroke risk
Dogs are the focus of most research on the health benefits of pets, but cats also have a key role to play. In fact, some research suggests people who own a cat are around 40% less likely to have a stroke.
10. They can improve physical fitness
Finally, pets that encourage physical activity can help to boost motivation to exercise and stay fit. After all, it’s often much more fun to hike with your puppy than it is to climb alone, riding a horse can be exhilarating, and even playing with an excitable kitten is sure to burn some calories. Older people who might otherwise live a sedentary life may particularly benefit from the gentle exercise associated with daily dog walking.