The Healing Power of Pets

The power of pets to reduce stress, enhance happiness and increase motivation are concepts that have long been discussed. For me, this topic became all the more relevant a little while ago after welcoming puppies into our home. I must confess, I have always liked pets, particularly dogs, and liked the thought of having them around. But even I have blown away by the positive impact they have had on our lives. As such, I thought it would be worthwhile delving into research looking at the healing power of pets. I also wanted to figure out if this all depended on the type of pet you have. After all, not everyone has the means or space to have larger pets like cats or dogs.

As I mentioned, we were lucky enough to welcome two new puppies into our lives a few years ago. While the initial weeks and months were a little challenging, overall it has been a tremendously rewarding experience. I had an “aha” moment about 6 months after getting our dogs, which made this clear to me.  I realized I was less stressed, more relaxed and happier in general. The only real change I could put this down to was having little furry four legged friends running around, creating mischief. I think there is something very rewarding about coming home after a hard day at work to be greeted by plenty of licks, wagging tails and excited barks courtesy of loving pooches.

Research Suggests…

Our two puppies, how they looked when we first got them.
Our two mini labradoodles, Pepper and Pickles, fresh out of the box!

If you consider the research, it looks like the affection we receive from our pets could indeed be genuine, matching our own sentiments. Spending quality time with a pet, can lead to the release of oxytocin in both the person and pet. Oxytocin works to strengthen the bond between pet and owner as well as supporting stress relief and relaxation. Intriguingly, the release of oxytocin by pets in close interaction with their owners mimics that of people when they are in love. Maybe the love we feel from our pets is why we get so attached to them and treat them like they are fully fledged family members.

Research goes on to suggest that there may be a number of benefits to owning a pet including:

  • Improving your health
  • Reducing blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Encouraging Exercise and Supporting Weight Loss
  • Supporting Improved Mental Health
  • Reducing allergies in children.

We explore some these areas in further detail below. Now a word of warning. The research I have cited has been verified to a limited extent only so please exercise some caution when considering the conclusions that have been shared. In any case, I would welcome any feedback for or against the results presented based on your own personal experience or research you have come across.

Improving Your Health

A photo of a cute, furry dog smiling and running towards the camera

Having a pet, may contribute to improving your fitness and heart health. This is likely in part due to the stress relief and relaxation benefits that arise from having a pet. Indeed, a 2013 review of numerous studies by the American Heart Association on “Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk” found that owning a pet, particularly a dog, can reduce the risk of heart disease. This may be also be the result of the increased exercise undertaken by a dog owner. Speaking from personal experience, I think this is accurate; you can always find an excuse not to exercise for yourself but its lot harder to not be there for your pooch. Exercising and being outside may also provide a benefits in terms of enhancing mood, encouraging social interaction and reducing stress.

While pets can support better heart health in the first instance, they may also enhance survival rates of patients following a heart attack. According to the Washington Post, a study conducted in 1980 and reproduced in 1995, revealed that people with pets who suffered a heart-attack were more likely to live beyond the one-year mark than those without.

Supporting Weight Loss

If you are having trouble shedding a few extra pounds, a pet dog may be an ideal option. According to Harvard Health Publications, a year-long study concluded walking an overweight dog assisted both the owner and their pet to lose weight. As noted above, this may have much to do with the fact you feel more committed to act when you are doing it for your pet, rather than doing it just for yourself.

Supporting Improved Mental Health

A photo showing the importance of balancing a healthy heart and brain

The companionship of pets can offer a multitude of benefits that support better mental health. Studies
have shown that the interaction between pets and their owners can enhance mood, reduce stress and anxiety, improve confidence and provide a greater sense of purpose. While I couldn’t find any specific research about how pets can alleviate depression, anecdotal examples seem to suggest that pets can help. This seems to be backed by research into how pets can support people to manage serious mental illness. Speaking from a personal level, I would have to say that having dogs has definitely helped to support better mental health and to keep me more balanced throughout each day.

Reducing Allergies in Children

Picture of a cartoon child sneezing

Sharing your home with pets during early childhood may reduce the risk of allergies, hay fever and eczema. This is based on the premise that early exposure to pet allergens allows the immune system to more sedately deal with these elements rather than “over-reacting” which can contribute to allergies.

Similar findings have been reported in other research. A Swedish study of a national database of over 1 million children born between 2001 and 2010, found that children were 15% less likely to suffer from asthma if they grew up with a pet dog. The benefits were even more pronounced for children that grew up in close proximity to farm animals. In such instances, the risk of asthma was halved in comparison with the typical population.

 

A Personal Tale

A photo of our mini labradoodles, Pepper and Pickles, all grown up!
Pepper and Pickles all grown up!

I do recall when we were considering getting pets, I was a little nervous about the extra work and potential hassle of having pets. One thing that assisted tremendously was having a clear idea of the kind of dog/s we wanted, which took into consideration:

  • Size of the breed
  • Level of exercise required
  • Level of maintenance required – i.e. level of grooming, level of shedding etc
  • Temperament

By going through this process, we decided on getting a small breed of indoor dog which matched our lifestyle. We also decided early on that we would get two puppies, so that they look after each while we were at work. Now getting two puppies at the same time from the same litter is frowned upon generally, but we have been very fortunate with our two and had no major issues. There are a few things rules to consider if you did so, like observing the pack structure. I may revisit this topic in a later post, if this of interest to you guys.

In the end we settled on mini labradoodles, based on our requirements and also our previous experience with the breed. Two years on, I can honestly say that getting pets has been one of the best decisions we have made as a couple. It has been incredibly rewarding and I think we are genuinely better and happier people for having dogs around. Perhaps I will delve into this a bit deeper in a follow up post as well.

 

What if four legs don’t make sense?

Now I hear what you are thinking… I’m not sure I could have a dog, or a cat where I’m staying or even afford to do so. In reality, this is the scenario faced by a lot of people. This got me thinking; has there been much research into the benefits of having a small pet around such as a bird, fish, rabbit, or hamster in place of your traditional cat or dog? While not exhaustive, studies do seem to point to a number of benefits in having a small pet:

Supporting Improvement in Mental and Physical Health

A UK study, conducted by National Marine Aquarium, Plymouth University and the University of Exeter, revealed that watching aquariums and fish tanks may help to reduce blood pressure and heart rate while enhancing your mood. In another study, stroking rabbits or turtles was found to relieve anxiety in comparison with doing the same on toy forms of each animal. Intriguingly, the results were the same for all participants irrespective of whether liked animals.

Supporting Better Social Interaction In Children

For many kids, the act of socializing with others can be a stressful one. This can be more pronounced in children with developmental conditions. In one study, the presence of guinea pigs in the classroom helped enhance the social behaviors of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These students displayed lower levels of stress, laughed more and engaged more freely with their peers.

Improving Mental Health in the Elderly  

I have seen stories about pets such as dogs, cats or even chickens visiting nursing homes and this translating into happier residents. It seems, however, that pets need not be cute or cuddly to have a positive impact on people enjoying their later years. A study published in 2016 in the journal Gerontology, found that having to look after crickets in a cage (yes, crickets!) reduced the level of depression in participants when compared with a control group over an 8 week period. This research, seems to suggest that when we have something outside ourselves to focus on or care for, irrespective of how small it is, it does have beneficial impact on our outlook.

Easier on Your Hip Pocket

A wallet showing the money you may save by getting a smaller pet

A smaller pet is likely to be much cheaper to look after than a traditional pet both in terms upfront and ongoing costs. A comparison by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals indicated that a small dog costs nearly $1,500 per year to look after when compared to $227 for a small fish. This comparison also did not consider the initial adoption fee which may run into hundreds, if not, thousands of dollars when compared with a small fish which is likely to be well below $100. Given the commitment may be less than for a dog or cat, owning a small pet may be a great starting point for you and your family to decide whether pet ownership firstly makes sense and if you could realistically bring animals which require greater attention into your lives.

 

Final Comments

There does seem to be considerable research which highlights the benefits of having pets whether they are large, small or in between. That being said, the examples provided should be viewed with caution noting that some of the studies may be small in size and short in duration when compared with more formal investigations.

In closing, it’s important to remember that when looking to get a pet, you should always do so because you love the idea of having them around. It should never be about gaining particular outcomes from owning a pet. If you bear this in mind, I am confident the benefits will flow both ways creating a win-win scenario for you and your pet, creating a great quality of life for all concerned.

Pet ownership always brings out strong opinions so I would love to hear about your personal experiences regarding the contents of this post. Please feel free to drop me a note below.

A cute guinea pig sitting in the grass looking at the camera

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