How pets can help you stay healthy

Fido, Fluffy and friends with feathers, fins and scales can make a big difference in our lives, providing companionship, structure and distraction from our concerns. But pets can also contribute to better physical and mental well-being, yielding substantial health benefits.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research indicates that the connection between individuals and their companion animals is associated with numerous health advantages, including reduced blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, fewer feelings of solitude and anxiety and diminished symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Pet ownership also increases opportunities for physical activities and outdoor pursuits, improved cognitive capabilities in seniors, and enhanced occasions for social interaction.

“Data tell us that owning a dog or cat can reduce the blood pressure of those over age 50, and a 20-year-long study of 2,400 cat owners demonstrated that they were less likely to suffer from cardiovascular-related illnesses,” says Cassandra Boduch, MD, chief medical officer for PsychPlus in Houston. “According to a behavioral risk factor survey, about 60% of people who walk dogs get the recommended amount of daily exercise as opposed to 45% of those who do not own or walk dogs.”

Veterinarian Paola Cuevas credits the activation of the body’s oxytocin system as the driving force behind the physiological and psychological benefits of pets on human mental and physical health.

Owning a cat or dog has been shown to reduce blood pressure and lessen the risk for cardiovascular disease. Getty Images

“From simple petting to caretaking and receiving positive feedback, animal-human interactions are beneficial for many of us. And with pets becoming part of our families, sharing our homes and daily lives for years makes the relationship closer,” Cuevas says. “Feeling a sense of belonging, security and care are all essential and beneficial for human beings, who are social creatures.”

Sean Prichard, president and head canine fitness coach for Pant & Wag, can personally testify to the perks of owning and spending time with animals.

“Before starting my company, I was overweight, on antidepressants, had high cholesterol and high blood pressure, was pre-diabetic and generally felt pretty miserable. I started my business to make dogs healthier and happier, but in the process, I became healthier and happier myself, losing over 30 pounds and getting off all my medications,” he says.

Engaging with pets provides a powerful means to diminish anxiety, stress and depression.

“The unwavering affection that pets offer serves to mitigate sentiments of isolation while providing steadfast companionship. Additionally, the responsibilities tied to pet ownership establish a daily routine and bestow a sense of purpose upon individuals,” says Matthew Schubert, a mental health counselor and owner of Gem State Wellness in Boise, Idaho.

Where the prospects for getting and interacting regularly with a pet include older adults who are seeking purpose and/or companionship.

“Also, anyone suffering from anxiety or depression are good candidates,” adds Schubert.

In fact, most people can gain from having a pet, assuming they don’t suffer from bad allergies to those particular species and have a home that’s appropriate for an animal, says Boduch.

“In reality, any pet animal that provides company and motivates you to care for and belong can have a positive impact on your health and well-being,” says Cuevas.

If you walk your dog (or dogs!), you’re more likely to get your recommended amount of daily exercise, research shows. Getty Images

That being said, canines rule if you seek a workout partner who can join you outdoors for walks or runs.

“Emotional support animals can also help those struggling with mental health issues. These pets should have certain qualities like being desensitized to changing environments, being calm and behaving well in public places,” Cuevas continues. “Licensed mental health professionals can provide emotional support animal referrals and prescriptions.”

Service animals must go through special training but even a pet can benefit those with disabilities. Getty Images

By contrast, a service dog can help a person with specific physical disabilities or medical issues. These animals need to go through specialized training to be able to perform their tasks.

“Kids on the autistic spectrum, persons with visual impairment or physical disabilities and any regular adult who needs a great excuse to stay active can all benefit from having a pet,” adds Cuevas.

Once you have a pet, count on spending quality time with it, including exercising and playing, to capitalize on the advantages of animal ownership, Boduch suggests.

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