Pets are beloved members of the family for many people. We look to them for companionship, for entertainment and as a way to stay fit — when the dog needs a walk, someone needs to walk her! But that is anecdotal. We all say our pets make us happy and healthy. But what’s the actual science behind how our animal-family members impact our life?
Scientists with the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging analyzed data gathered from more than 50,000 people aged 45 and 85. They saw that over a third of people in the group had pets and experienced higher life satisfaction. Companionship from pets can fight the depression that may otherwise have negative impacts on health. Depression itself can take in a severe toll. When you add in the fatigue that frequently accompanies the disorder, it’s very easy for a depressed person not to get any exercise. Which causes additional health problems. In Germany and Australia, research shows that people with pets have 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor a year.
A different study found that animals have such a profound impact on people that therapy animals lowered people’s stress and pain levels after surgery. The people in the study who received animal therapy recovered more quickly than the people who just took pain meds.
The numbers have been broken down more precisely through the Univ. of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. Two thousand people, aged 50 to 80, answered the questions. Fifty-five percent owned a pet, with dogs being the most popular followed by cats and then “small animals” like hamsters. Dogs were the most common pet, followed by cats and small animals, such as birds and hamsters. The majority of respondents believed their pets increased both their mental and physical health and helped them cope with physical and emotional problems. Almost 90 percent said their animals helped them feel loved. Eighty percent said that they experienced reduced stress. Seventy-five percent said their pets gave them a purpose. Most people said pets made them stay physically active. The NIH has seen that dog owners tend to get more exercise and health benefits than dog-less peers. They also observed that older adults who lived with dogs had better mobility than those who didn’t.
Studies have also shown that the relationship between owners and animals is linked to lower risks for heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. But, pet ownership has problems too. Many people find travel hard because of their pet responsibilities. Many find that the cost of a pet puts a dent in their budget. People with pets reported falling because of the animal. And, many admitted to prioritizing their animal’s needs over their own.
The good news is that if you can’t have a pet of your own, many communities have events where people can spend time with animals. Some areas have social programs that arrange therapeutic visits with animals.