We’ve known it for millennia: animals make us feel good.
But they also do us good (when they aren’t gnawing on our shoes, that is). Over the last 20 years, research on human-animal interactions has emerged, proving that people who have pets are happier and healthier. They visit the doctor less often, have more fun, and feel more secure than people who don’t have pets.
Why? Despite how many gadgets we own, humans are animals—and the need to be around other animals is a fundamental part of being human, according to Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Animal-Human Bond at Purdue University. Here are the many healthy roles pets play in our lives.
Like any enjoyable activity, playing with a pet can elevate mood-boosting levels of serotonin and dopamine, Beck says. What’s more, contact with animals can immediately increase levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that lights up the brain’s pleasure centers—and is famous for its release during orgasm. When performing a stressful task, people suffer less stress when their pets are with them than when a spouse, family member, or close friend is, according to a 2002 study at State University of New York at Buffalo. (3) A pet’s calming influence even works better at controlling high blood pressure than the most frequently used prescription drugs.
Who’s walking whom? Studies suggest the human benefits of regular potty-break walks rival those of Fido’s filled-up bladder. Dog owners who regularly walk their dogs are more active and less likely to be overweight than those who don’t own or walk a dog, according to one study of more than 2,000 adults. Don’t exactly walk your cat, hamster, or iguana? You probably still get more exercise than non-pet owners, according to Beck. All pet owners have to exert some physical activity to care for animals, and are often up and active to be near, play, and cuddle with them.
Your animal friends can help you make human friends. Multiple studies have shown that walking with a dog in public leads to more conversations. Why? People assume that pet-owners are kind and approachable, Beck says. But animals’ social skills include more than easing introductions. “Some of the social support we get from humans we get from animals, too,” says Beck, who notes than dog and cat ownership is much more common in married couples and families with children than in single-person homes. Animals are an extension of our natural social support system, not a replacement for it, he says.
Animal-assisted therapy (a.k.a. animal visits) is quickly becoming an accepted means of pain management in hospitals. People who use pet therapy while recovering from surgery need less than half of the pain medication than those who do not use it, according to a study from Loyola University. Meanwhile, patients—and even their vital signs—report significant improvements in pain, mood, and other distress measures after a therapy animal visit.
Pets are more than heartwarming. They also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack by lowering systolic blood pressure, plasma cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. And those pet owners who do suffer from heart attacks have higher rates of survival than non-pet owners. A year after suffering a heart attack, regardless of its severity, dog owners are significantly more likely to still be alive than those who do not own dogs. While many of the cardiovascular benefits can be attributed to the mere presence of an animal, the increase in physical activity among pet owners is also linked to improved heart function.
“Smelling chemical changes in the body is really no different than sniffing out drugs or bombs,” Beck says. “Animals can sense changes we can’t even sense in ourselves.” That’s why more and more animals are being trained to monitor their owners’ health through programs like Dogs4Diabetics. One-third of pets living with people with diabetes—including dogs, cats, rabbits, and even birds—exhibit dramatic behavioral changes when their owners’ blood glucose levels drop. And after just three weeks of training, dogs can detect breast and lung cancer up to 97% of the time, according to a study published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies. Animals can also sense the oncoming of epileptic seizures, and service animals are able to warn their owners to sit or lie down before the onset of the seizure.
Pet ownership is nature’s immunotherapy. Children from households with pets attend school three weeks more per year than those who don’t have pets. And the more pets children have, the fewer allergies they develop in adulthood. They are also less likely to have eczema, and have higher levels of some immune system chemicals, pointing to a stronger overall immune system. By curbing stress—and reducing the levels of harmful chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine—pets further strengthen immunity throughout life.
Animal interactions are hugely beneficial to the development of children—especially those with developmental challenges, Beck says. Children with autism are often able to comfortable interact with pets, which can in turn help their interactions with other children, while the sensory experience of petting an animal can be soothing for children, according to the National Institutes of Health. Taking care of a pet can encourage children—especially those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—to focus their attention, and teach children than caring is not just “mommy’s job,” Beck says. Furthermore, Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s official manual of mental disorder classifications, notes that stuttering is often absent when children talk to pets.