The Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.George Eliot

If you have a pet I am pretty sure they are a great source of pleasure to you. Hopefully they are an important part of your family, with their own unique personality and behaviour patterns. It may interest you to know then that owning a pet can bring with it many benefits to your mental and physical wellbeing. If you don't have a pet, then discover some of the reasons why it may be worthwhile getting one.

The psychological benefits

A confidante
You've had a terrible day and you just need to vent. However your friends aren't available, your partner is at work and you don't see your counsellor until Friday. Fortunately, you can just sit and talk to your pet. They may or may not understand you. Not that it matters: at least it means you can say what you want without fear of reproach. Because they don't judge you. Even better, you can truly be yourself around your pet.

Reduces loneliness
You are not alone with a pet. What a good feeling it is when your cat curls up on your lap or comes to greet you at the door. Or you're working at your desk and they decide to visit you for no apparent reason. A number of studies add support to this idea. Research conducted at Ohio State University found university students who owned a pet were less stressed, lonely and depressed compared to those who did not have a pet. Other research reports that homeless young people who had pets were less lonely and were in better health than those without.

Even a robot dog can be a companion to someone. Residents of a nursing home in the US had regular visits from either a real dog, a robot dog or no visit at all. After seven weeks the residents had formed attachments to their dog visitor, whether they were real or not and found them to be a great source of comfort.

Mood booster
If you've ever watched TV programs like Funniest Home Videos, you will be aware of how frequently the actions of pets bring laughter and smiles. Furthermore, being entertained by a pet will be good for the family as a whole. Caring for a pet is a common interest shared by each member and each person will develop their own relationship with the animal.

If pets boost mood, then presumably they can help prevent the onset of depression. One particular study showed how men with AIDS who owned a pet were less likely to suffer from depression, compared to those who did not have such a companion. People with HIV and AIDS are at a greater risk of developing depression.

Pet ownership has to be good for your self-esteem. You get to learn new skills and increase your knowledge as you discover more about your animal and the things you need to do to look after them. Seeing them thrive will be a boost to your confidence. Sharing what you have learned with others will also increase your self-worth.

Develop empathy and caring
Having a pet offers you a chance to develop your empathy skills. Animals may not be as expressive as humans, but any pet lover will know when their pet is feeling down or in pain. It also means you are putting the needs of another ahead of your own. Thinking of another (whether person or animal) takes your mind off your own concerns. If you are prone to getting stuck in your head, this can be a good thing.

In addition, for some pet owners, it is an opportunity to carry out an act of kindness to the community. There are organisations people can join to offer their pets up as therapists. Their pet (generally dogs) visits nursing homes and hospitals. One example of this is Therapy Dogs in the US.

The physical benefits

Stress reduction
Given the psychological benefits associated with pets, it is not surprising to learn that they are a great way to reduce stress. If you experience stress long term, you put yourself at risk of some serious health problems. These include: heart disease, diabetes, ulcers, asthma and migraines.

However, having a pet can relieve stress in a number of ways. Simply stroking or cuddling your pet has been shown to lower blood pressure, slow down your heart rate, your muscles are no longer tensed and breathing returns to normal. All the things you would want from a stress reliever. Stroking your pet may even release endorphins - a natural pain reliever and stress reducer. It has also been shown that simply having your pet near you at times of stress, may reduce your stress-related symptoms. Bear this in mind if you have to make a difficult phone call.

Lower lipid levels
Lipids are a type of fat found in the blood that is linked with diabetes. Cholesterol is a lipid and high levels of the bad cholesterol (low density lipoprotein) put you at risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Another type of lipid is triglycerides and this can also increase the risk of heart disease if it is present at high levels.

People who own pets tend to have lower lipid levels compared to people who do not have pets. It is possible that the extra activity involved in having a pet may explain these differences.

If you own a dog it is the perfect way of getting exercise. Come rain or shine, your puppy will want to be walked. Physical exercise benefits you both physically and mentally. Your daily walk is also a chance to meet other people. Meeting other dog owners, means you instantly have something in common.

Getting exercise outside alone can be a safety concern particularly for women. These feelings can be greatly decreased with a dog by your side.

Research has shown that children who have a dog are less likely to be overweight than those without. They offer the child opportunities for play, even if it is just around the house.

Pet therapy
When clinicians use pets as part of their work, you can be certain that there is something good about the process. There are numerous examples of health professionals taking their dogs to work with them. Here are some examples I came across. A physiotherapist takes her dog to work with her at the hospital she works in at Harborview Medical Centre, Seattle. Another dog makes visits to patients at Bellevue's Overlake hospital in Washington. In the 1960s, Boris Levinson a child psychiatrist used his dog Jingles in therapy with his young patients. In Montrose, there is a mental health clinician whose dog is involved in therapy sessions with children. Even Great Ormond Street Hospital is taken with the idea, with Ripley the dog visiting sick children.

Tips for getting the most from your pet

  • Think of creative ways you can spend time with your pet, so as to make things more interesting for the both of you. Be on the lookout for new play opportunities, inventing games that will get you both thinking.
  • If you want to enhance your chances of happiness and are not sure which pet to get, go for tropical fish. Research by Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire found tropical fish owners to be the most content amongst pet owners.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity pets give you to be kind to another.
  • If you don't have a pet, you could get your fix by helping out at a local shelter. Volunteering increases happiness and you're doing something good for the animals.
  • Take photos of your pets. Even better film them.
  • Know that it is okay to have your pet as a member of the family and not just part of the furniture. So make sure you don't forget their birthday!
  • Don't forget animal shelters if you are thinking about getting a pet. How great, rescuing an animal that will consequently be a source of joy for you.

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