Along with tattered teddy bears, much-loved baby dolls and imaginary friends, family pets are loyal and unquestioning confidantes from the moment we learn to talk. They listen patiently, never answer back and are wonderful secret-keepers. So, it’s no surprise that the well-being benefits of pet ownership start young.
The early years
Looking after a pet during childhood – from a single goldfish or a pair of gerbils, to an adult cat or dog – builds confidence, teaches responsibility and encourages empathy for other living creatures. Some studies suggest having a dog in the home during infancy can reduce children’s risk of developing allergies, respiratory infections, ear infections and gastroenteritis1. A 2016 study by the University of Leicester also revealed that owning a family pet has a positive impact on day to day life for the parents of autistic children2, while other research has found that pets can help to distract children with autism from things that typically make them anxious.
Even teenagers are not immune: a 2015 US study found that asking a group of teens with Type 1 diabetes to each look after a Siamese fighting fish, and linking the fish care with regular diabetes self-management tasks, led to big improvements in how their diabetes was managed3. A surprise finding was that the fish-tending teens also became better at communicating with their parents.
Mindfulness and mood boosts
Mars, the makers of some of the world’s biggest pet food brands, have taken a keen interest in animal-human relationships for many years, and they’re constantly exploring how the bond between pets and humans translates into tangible health benefits4. One topical area they’ve been investigating is mindfulness.
Pets are naturally mindful, focusing only on the here and now, and it’s a skill we can easily share. Patting, cuddling or playing with a pet can be a very effective way to relax, de-stress, and even manage pain – as long as you focus on your pet, rather than letting your mind wander back to what has been making you feel anxious. The unconditional acceptance pets give back is naturally calming, and even the simple act of staring into a dog’s eyes may boost levels of the ‘feel good’ hormone, oxytocin.
Takefumi Kikusui, an animal behaviourist at Azabu University in Japan found that dog and owner can both benefit from an increase in oxytocin after just a few minutes of eye-gazing: a 130% rise in the dogs, and an incredible 300% increase among the owners5.
Watching an aquarium of fish can dramatically alter our mood, too. In 2015, scientists at the National Marine Aquarium in England discovered that watching aquarium displays reduced blood pressure and heart rate, and the more fish there were in the tank, the more powerful the mood-boost6.
Exercise and the immune system
But the health benefits of pet ownership extend far beyond the mind. Walking your dog for half an hour every day equals three to four extra hours of weekly exercise which feeds into all-round well-being. A study in Germany discovered that people with pets made fewer GP visits and took less days off work sick7.
And as weird as it sounds, research has even suggested that listening to a cat purr could help to heal bones and hasten recovery from injury. Veterinary researchers at the University of California discovered that a cat typically purrs at a vibration frequency of 25-150 Hz – pretty much the same vibration range which has been scientifically shown to have a positive effect on joint mobility and bone density8. It’s only a theory right now, but it’s a great reason for extra kitty cuddles.
More seriously, pet ownership has been linked to improved heart health and lower blood pressure. One study discovered that people with a dog or a cat had lower resting heart rates and blood pressure counts after performing stressful tasks9.
Pets are also a great source of social support10 – a key reason why pet ownership became so popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dogs, in particular, can be brilliant conversation-starters and many first-time dog-owners are genuinely amazed by how many new people they meet while walking. But any kind of pet can be an invaluable source of social and emotional support, including birds, reptiles and small furry animals, and this support is especially valuable in later life.
The senior years
Animal therapy can help to counteract the social withdrawal often associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia – particularly as touch can often be one of the last senses to be affected. Gentle interaction with pets can help to open conversations with carers and family, recover long-lost memories, and decrease anxiety and agitation11.
So, whatever age or life stage we’re at, there’s no doubt that owning a pet may have well-being benefits. We simply need to stop, relax and let our animals take the lead.
• Become a registered carer or sitter
• Sign up as a dog borrower
• Support military pet-owners on deployment
• Visit a cat café
• Arrange a pet therapy visit for your local hospital or school
• Join the Cuddle Club at home or at work
• Volunteer at your local animal shelter or become a foster pet-parent
UK: Leading animal shelter organisations include Dogs Trust, PDSA, Cats Protection, RSPCA, Battersea & Wood Green Animal Charity
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