People and pets have a long history of relationships together. Discoveries of the human animal bond have been preserved in the ancient Egyptian tombs, on cave walls and even in skeletal human and animal remains, buried together. It is easy to feel the modern-day joys our pets bring us, but researchers are also in agreement that there is compelling evidence these emotional connections actually translate to positive physical health benefits for us as well.
The pet population in the United States has dramatically grown over the past 50 years. In 1967, 40 million dogs and cats were claimed as pets; this number grew to more than 160 million 50 years later. That being said, it’s not surprising the pet industry as a whole is also booming – especially when it comes to cat and dog insurance.
Currently, it is estimated that two-thirds of American households own at least one animal as a pet. Clearly companion animals are more popular than ever, and there is growing research that suggests there is a good reason for this. The general consensus among scientists and researchers is that the human-animal bond can promote both physical and psychological growth and development, despite the fact that there are relatively few controlled studies to draw from.
Your pet: purrrfect for your heart?
One such study designed to better understand the health benefits of owning pets examined 240 married couples. The couples that owned a pet were more likely to have lower blood pressure and lower resting heart rates than non-pet-owning people, AND when subjected to ‘stressful’ situations, pet owners were found to have continued lower blood pressure and heart rates.
When the subjects had their pets with them, they had quicker recovery times following the stressful events than they did when with their spouse or a friend. This indicates that animals can have a calming effect on their owners.
Another study investigated the cardiovascular benefits of owning a pet. Adults with pets that had suffered a heart attack were more likely to be alive one year later than those who did not own dogs, despite differences in the severity of the heart attack. It could be inferred that people with dogs were more likely to get outside and exercise, thus benefiting their cardiovascular health. It could also be concluded that people with an animal companion were less likely to feel depressed following a major health scare, since they have the affection and love from their pet.
It’s OK that your dog is walking you
Elderly and very young people seem to have an increased benefit from pet ownership. Senior dog walkers have been found to be more mobile and able in their own homes than elderly people without dogs. Those who do regular dog walking also were able to walk faster and for longer periods of time than seniors without a dog to walk.
There is research suggesting that children may have special benefits from pet companionship. Experts in early childhood development and behavior seem to agree that having pets when young can help children to develop empathy and provide a source of comfort. Autistic children especially seem to benefit from interactions with animals, and often find communication easier with pets than with people.
Researchers have also found that adults who had animals in the home as infants and children are half as likely to develop allergies to pets later in life. One study published examined a group of over 500 children, who were followed from birth until 18 years. The study concluded that being exposed to cats and dogs in the first year of life, rather than any other time, was the most important factor to reduce the risk of pet allergies later in life. Overall, there was about a 50 percent decrease in pet allergies in the children with pets, than those without.
Can pets that heel also heal?
Pets are a great social outlet as well. There are numerous studies that suggest the more social relationships a person has, the healthier and happier they tend to be. Try walking a dog without having at least one or two people come talk to you! Having pets can therefore help you to make human friends as well.
There are several studies currently being conducted, examining the benefits of animals as therapy companions in sick or painful hospitalized patients. Doctors and nurses have long anecdotally noted the improvement in their patients’ condition after a visit from a therapy dog, and researchers are hopeful these studies will prove the benefits.
So maybe our pets are ‘paying us back’ for all our attention and care to them by keeping us happier and healthier. We can return the favor by investing in the best pet insurance we can find – to ensure we’re able to afford the highest level of healthcare. Additional studies can and will continue to prove what we have known for centuries, that owning pets brings joy in more ways than one!
Dr. Fiona Caldwell is a veterinary pet health writer for Pets Best Insurance. Dr. Caldwell received her undergraduate degree from Willamette University and her veterinary degree from Colorado State University. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and outdoor activities with her husband and two furry “children” – Pepe’ the Shih Tzu and Tulah the three-legged Pomeranian.