Most pet owners can attest to the joy of owning a pet – simply petting a dog or watching fish swim in an aquarium calms many individuals.
As of late, there have been studies and research into how exactly our pets can benefit our health. A brief overview from News in Health shows what pets can do for us: “interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and boost your mood1.”
To see what the latest research has to say about the impacts of pets on our physical and mental well being, read on below.
- Improved Mental Well-Being: Companion Dogs
Even without delving into research, it’s not difficult to believe that many people see pets as a source of companionship
A study by Powell et al., 2019 followed 3 groups of people in order to find out about how acquiring a dog could affect the following mental health factors: loneliness, positive and negative affect, and psychological distress2. The groups were as follows: individuals who acquired a dog within 1 month of the baseline data being taken for the aforementioned factors, individuals who were interested in acquiring a dog but would not do so during the study period and individuals who were uninterested in dog ownership in the foreseeable future and had not owned a dog recently.
Below are the significant results of the study:
- Individuals that acquired a dog within the study period saw a moderate decrease in loneliness within 3 months, which lasted until the end of the study.
- Acquiring a dog didn’t appear to affect positive affect – however, dog acquisition did decrease negative affect moderately.
- Dog acquisition doesn’t appear to significantly affect psychological stress.
With these results in mind, we can start considering why exactly owning a dog decreases loneliness in a lasting manner. Obviously, dogs can serve as a source of companionship – but they can also serve as a catalyst for interactions with other individuals. Owning a dog opens up opportunities for owners to socialize on walks, at dog parks or at dog grooming salons.
- Prevention Against Allergies in Children
You may have heard that in recent times, allergies, asthma and other autoimmune conditions are on the rise. According to a study published in Arthritis and Rheumatology3, this is true, at least in the United States.
However, an increase in autoimmune conditions isn’t unilateral across all populations. Take this study by Gern et al., 2004 – they followed infants from birth to 1 year of age in households with dogs or cats present at the time of the child’s birth4. During this time period, they obtained data via questionnaires and physical examinations regularly. Overall, they were able to find that having a dog in infancy was associated with reduced allergic sensitization and atopic dermatitis (eczema).
- Improved Self Care and Discipline
For some individuals, taking care of a pet can also result in taking better care of themselves. One study that highlights such improved self care is this study published in Diabetes Education where pet owning type 1 diabetic teens have their average blood sugar studied over time5.
In this specific study, adolescents were either assigned to a group that was to take care of a betta fish (in addition to being given instructions that would associate fish care with diabetic self-management tasks) or to a group where diabetic care would be managed as usual.
At the 3 month mark, they found that the average blood sugar levels for the teens that took care of a betta fish alongside their diabetic care routine. One possible explanation for this finding included the betta fish themselves being a visual reminder for the adolescents to engage in routine diabetic care.
Aside from this study, other individuals may feel that if their own health is not taken care of, then the quality of care that they provide to their pets would then be impacted. As such, that may explain why individuals who have pets may appear to be in overall better health than those without.
- Improved Blood Pressure and Decreased Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you – some types of pets require regular exercise, which can improve blood pressure over time. Additionally, spending time with pets is often therapeutic for pet owners, meaning their stress levels decrease and consequently their blood pressure.
Below are some significant findings as outlined by a review by Schreiner (2016) regarding the relationship between owning pets and cardiovascular findings6 that’ll help verify the above thoughts:
- When comparing survivors of heart attacks or angina pectoris that owned or did not own a pet, the one-year survival rate was greater for pet owners than it was for non pet owners (94% vs 72%) in one study.
- In another study, it was found that in comparison to non-pet owners, pet owners had lower heart rates and blood pressure at rest, in addition to faster recovery from stress. These results were especially prominent in dog owners.
- For older pet owners with mild or pre-hypertension (50-83 years old), a study was done to examine blood pressure at different time points in comparison to a baseline and with or without the presence of a pet. In several dog owners, a lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure was noted. In cat owners, a lower diastolic blood pressure was noted.
- Recognition of Hypoglycemic Episodes by Dogs
Dogs have a wide array of functions in our society – one such use is detecting when people are experiencing low blood sugar levels. Some dogs naturally are able to alert their owners about low blood sugar episodes – they can also be specifically trained for this purpose.
A study by Rooney et. al., (2019) sought to find out whether trained dogs were truly effective at detecting hypoglycemic episodes or if there may be placebo effects occurring7. The dogs used in this study were trained by the Medical Detection Dogs charity – additionally, each dog in this study had been accredited for between 0.2 and 3.2 years.
Overall, when examining the median sensitivity for trained dogs detecting hypoglycemia, it was found to be 83%, which is considerably higher than a previous study that was conducted in 2016 that found which only reported a 36% median8.
However, it does need to be noted that more recently train dogs tend to show better results than dogs that were trained longer ago.
- Decreased Frailty As We Age
Frailty can be generally defined as reduced function and health in older individuals. However, steep declines in health and a severely reduced ability to perform activities of daily living aren’t inevitable as we age.
One way that our health might be maintained or improved as we age is through pet ownership – a review by Kojima et. al, (2020) seeks to examine associations between pet ownership and frailty9. Compiled below are some of the important findings of this review:
- Older pet owners are more likely to “to walk, have higher levels of physical activity, avoid sedentary behaviors, and retain activities of daily living (ADL) levels.9” Being active is especially important in maintaining bone density – even just walking regularly can limit progressive bone loss10.
- Individuals in long term care or assisted living facilities benefit from animal contact in the form of decreased depressive symptoms and loneliness – pet ownership can also help expand the social networks of elders who would otherwise be elderly. Depressive symptoms, loneliness and otherwise poor social profiles are all risk factors for frailty9.
Overall, pets can help mitigate risk factors for frailty as we age via support of both mental and physical health.
- The Power of Pets. (2018). Retrieved 15 December 2021, from https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets
- Powell, L., Edwards, K.M., McGreevy, P. et al. Companion dog acquisition and mental well-being: a community-based three-arm controlled study. BMC Public Health 19, 1428 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-7770-5
- Dinse, G. E., Parks, C. G., Weinberg, C. R., Co, C. A., Wilkerson, J., Zeldin, D. C., Chan, E., & Miller, F. W. (2020). Increasing Prevalence of Antinuclear Antibodies in the United States. Arthritis & rheumatology (Hoboken, N.J.), 72(6), 1026–1035. https://doi.org/10.1002/art.41214
- Gern, J., Reardon, C., Hoffjan, S., Nicolae, D., Li, Z., Roberg, K., Neaville, W., Carlson-Dakes, K., Adler, K. and Hamilton, R., 2004. Effects of dog ownership and genotype on immune development and atopy in infancy☆. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 113(2), pp.307-314.
- Maranda, L., Lau, M., Stewart, S. M., & Gupta, O. T. (2015). A novel behavioral intervention in adolescents with type 1 diabetes mellitus improves glycemic control: preliminary results from a pilot randomized control trial. The Diabetes educator, 41(2), 224–230. https://doi.org/10.1177/0145721714567235
- Schreiner P. J. (2016). Emerging Cardiovascular Risk Research: Impact of Pets on Cardiovascular Risk Prevention. Current cardiovascular risk reports, 10(2), 8. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12170-016-0489-2
- Rooney, N. J., Guest, C. M., Swanson, L., & Morant, S. V. (2019). How effective are trained dogs at alerting their owners to changes in blood glycaemic levels?: Variations in performance of glycaemia alert dogs. PloS one, 14(1), e0210092. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210092
- Los, E. A., Ramsey, K. L., Guttmann-Bauman, I., & Ahmann, A. J. (2017). Reliability of Trained Dogs to Alert to Hypoglycemia in Patients With Type 1 Diabetes. Journal of diabetes science and technology, 11(3), 506–512. https://doi.org/10.1177/1932296816666537
- Kojima, G., Aoyama, R., & Taniguchi, Y. (2020). Associations between Pet Ownership and Frailty: A Systematic Review. Geriatrics (Basel, Switzerland), 5(4), 89. https://doi.org/10.3390/geriatrics5040089
- Benedetti, M. G., Furlini, G., Zati, A., & Letizia Mauro, G. (2018). The Effectiveness of Physical Exercise on Bone Density in Osteoporotic Patients. BioMed research international, 2018, 4840531. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/4840531