Health

All the Reasons Pets Are Good for You

Published On 12/10/2015 Published On 12/10/2015
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Owning a pet is one of the few experiences that can make you amenable to receiving a slobbery kiss from an animal that also licks its butt. Pets are funny, they’re sweet, and if they’re cute enough, you might just be able to make a killing on them by turning them into YouTube stars.

But not everybody sees the innate benefits of pet ownership. If you need help convincing your partner or roommate to let you get a pet, this guide may help tip them over the edge.

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Dogs make you exercise more

Taking your dog for a walk does more than just find your pet a less obnoxious place to pee than in your hallway. Family medicine practitioner Dr. Mia Finkelston tells us about an NIH-funded study that showed dog owners get more exercise than those who didn’t -- and were less likely to be obese.

Veterinarian Dr. Louise Murray, author of Vet Confidential, agrees with the findings. “More than half of dog owners have said that their dogs make them more active,” she tells us.

Dr. Murray also notes that staying active helps your dog, and older dogs can be reinvigorated by living with more active, younger dogs. So even if your old dog seem really, really, deeply annoyed by the new puppy, know that being around puppyhood is good for him in the long run.

“When there’s a younger dog in the home, older dogs get more activity… they can also be calmed by having a companion pet,” Dr. Murray explains.

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Pets can reduce anxiety

If you recently came home to a litter box mishap or another pair of chewed-up socks, this might sound pretty unbelievable. But pets in general -- and especially furry pets -- help reduce anxiety, says psychologist Dr. Sarah Allen.

“When someone is anxious, adrenaline floods through the body,” Dr. Allen explains. “The physical act of petting an animal -- smoothing a furry cat or dog -- helps you breathe more evenly, reduces your adrenaline levels, and can really calm down your whole autonomic system.” Which means those nights when you do nothing other than watch Netflix and pet your cat? You’re actually proactively reducing your stress levels in a way that’s totally backed up by science.

Animals can make you less depressed

One study of over 1,800 men showed that AIDS patients who had pets were much less likely to feel depressed,” Dr. Finkelston notes. “Stroking a purring cat has been found to increase serotonin levels and decrease cortisol.”

She also explains that medications like Prozac and other SSRIs are designed, in part, to allow more serotonin to float around in your brain. While petting a fluffy animal may not have the exact same effects as popping a pill, studies have shown that this action can raise serotonin levels. It’s not exactly “medicine,” but it’s not a bad option.

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Petting an animal lowers your blood pressure

Dr. Finkelston also mentioned a study conducted on 48 New York stockbrokers, all of whom were being treated for hypertension. Basically, these guys had high blood pressure -- seriously high blood pressure -- but the drugs they were on only helped them during non-stressful moments. Given these guys’ careers, tensions tended to run high, and they needed alternative help. But researchers found that those who had pet dogs or cats had lower blood pressure during stressed-out periods than those who didn’t.

It’s a small study,” Dr. Finkelston acknowledges. “But it makes you wonder if that ability to care for something other than yourself does have an effect on your blood pressure.”

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Pets may reduce the risk of allergies and asthma

Unlike the small study on stockbrokers, this research was conducted over a period of nine years on more than a million Swedish children. Basically, researchers found that kids who were exposed to the allergens of dogs or farm animals when they were babies had a lower risk of asthma later in life. It makes a lot of intuitive sense, if you think about it: exposure to dirt in childhood is known to build immunities later on, so these results aren’t so surprising.

“It’s a really believable study,” Dr. Finkelston says. “When scientists look at these smaller studies, they may question it, but this one really has merit.”

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Pets can help you live longer

Dr. Murray says that having something to take care of is very healthy, especially for seniors. “Having a pet can actually expand your lifespan,” she says. The American Heart Association has even gone so far as to say that owning a dog might lower your risk of heart disease, which is the number one cause of death in the U.S.

Dr. Allen explains that taking care of a pet can give seniors energy and purpose. Pets offer a lot of benefits, but one of them is simply company. “They’re demanding attention from you, which can give you a purpose -- and that’s very therapeutic,” she says.

So if you’re not sure what to get mom for the holiday, maybe take her to the SPCA for a new furry friend. You can explain that it’s just because you want her to live longer (which, true), but you’ll also have an animal to hang out with when you visit. Win/win.

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Non-furry pets can also boost your health

While most of the studies about health and pet ownership involve cats and dogs, non-furry animals may be good for you as well. Dr. Finkelston notes that owning fish can be meditative and relaxing, and has been shown to calm Alzheimer’s patients.

“If you have something to care for -- a snake, fish, birds -- this act can help you take your mind off yourself, be compassionate, and empathize,” she says.

One small study even suggests that robotic animals -- like the AIBO -- can be helpful, though, let’s be real, a robot dog doesn’t come close to the real thing.

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Jess Novak will cross the street to pet your dog. Check out the pictures she posts of other people’s pets on Twitter @jesstothenovak and Instagram @jtothenovak.

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