Pets Provide Amazing Health Benefits

English Setter serving as therapy dog on a senior woman's lap


Anyone who owns a pet can tell you about their animal’s ability to provide joy, lift one out of a funk and even create a purpose in life. But science is now beginning to take a hard look at what this bond means for human health and well-being. Research has shown that when humans and dogs interact with each other, oxytocin – a hormone that helps with bonding – increases in both subjects.

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), owning a pet may have the following health benefits:

  • Decrease blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Reduce feelings of loneliness
  • Increase opportunities for exercise and getting outdoors
  • Improve opportunities for socialization

dogAccording to Glenn N. Levine, M.D., professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, “pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with a decreased risk of heart disease.” Although they didn’t go so far as to say that owning a pet directly attributed to the lower risk, the statement noted that research shows that:

  • Dog owners were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity than non-dog owners.
  • Owning pets may be associated with lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and obesity.
  • Pets can have a positive effect on the body’s reactions to stress.

Unfortunately, as we age, owning a pet is not always a viable option. Caring for a dog takes a great deal of time and energy and many older adults simply aren’t physically able to keep up with a dog’s demands for exercise and activity. In these cases, pet therapy can provide many of the benefits of pet ownership without the responsibility. Animals are now being used as tools of therapy for individuals living with a variety of conditions, including chronic pain, autism, depression and even Alzheimer’s.

Studies with Alzheimer’s patients have shown that interaction with dog lying on pillowanimals can reduce agitation, increase positive social behavior (smiling, laughing, and talking) and improve appetites. A recent pilot program in Germany with nursing home resident living with dementia showed that participants in animal-assisted therapy sessions showed improved verbal communication and attentiveness. In a study conducted at Purdue University, even having an aquarium of fish helped nursing home residents with Alzheimer’s become more relaxed and alert and less likely to become aggressive or wander off. That’s why animals are now commonly used for therapeutic purposes in hospitals, senior living communities, and even in hospice settings.

Our connection to animals is innate. According to Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, “The bond between animals and humans is part of our evolution, and it’s very powerful.” So, adopt a dog, pet a cat, or get an aquarium full of fish. You’ll both benefit from the experience.