We’ve shared our lives with domesticated animals for more than 10,000 years, but have only recently started to study and understand the importance of the human-animal bond. Now 90% of pet owners see their pet as part of the family. While we look after them, they in return look after us. It’s proven that interacting with pets helps bring a healthier and happier life, strengthens community ties, providing friendship, laughter, joy, security and love. 

What are the benefits to us of pet ownership?

Physical health benefits:

  • Pet owners visit the doctors less often, spending less money on medication.
  • Studies found dog owners aged 65+ did more walking, with fewer periods of sitting than people without dogs. Exercise is linked to positive mental well being and dog walks lead to more social interactions.
  • Pets reduce blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease and cholesterol. One study linked cat ownership to reduced risk of dying from heart attack or stroke. Even the sound of a cat’s purr can calm your nerves and lower your blood pressure. It’s thought 28% of pet owners survive serious heart attacks compared to 6% that don’t own pets.
  • Pets have been implicated as a possible cause of asthma and allergies. However, growing up with a dog during infancy can help strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of allergies linked to asthma.
  • Research shows that sound frequencies in the range of a cat’s purr can improve bone density and promote healing which may provide help for some humans.
  • Guide dogs provide support to their owners, alert dogs alert their owners to an oncoming seizure giving time to get to a safe and private place. They can be life saving. Although not pets, these, and other forms of therapy animals, have been helping people for years.

Mental health benefits

  • Pet ownership reduces stress levels. Petting your cat releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone or ‘cuddle chemical’ which can make you feel less stressed.
  • For the bereaved, a strong attachment to a pet is associated with significantly less depression.
  • Elderly people with pets generally live longer due to increased exercise, socialisation and mental activity.
  • Having a pet reduces loneliness. Loneliness is linked to an increased risk of many diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
  • Children suffering ADD are able to focus on pets, which enables them to learn how to concentrate.
  • Children and adolescents who grow up around pets have higher self-esteem, show more empathy, and are often more involved in sports, hobbies, and clubs.
  • Pet owners are less afraid of being a victim of crime, within and outside the home.
  • Research into the roles of pets in long-term mental health-care suggests pets may provide security, proximity and consistency lacking from other relationships.

The bigger social picture

  • Dogs increase the number and length of conversations, which is especially important within the elderly population, and within care homes. Indeed, therapy pets visit residential homes, hospitals, hospices, schools, day care centres and prisons.
  • Pets help people connect, leading to increased community spirit, less crime, higher wealth and education.
  • The human-animal bond depends on responsible pet ownership: physically, socially and mentally healthy pets are a reflection of a healthy society.

While pets are often viewed as a luxury, the benefits they bring to our mental and physical health are perhaps underestimated. Should pet ownership be akin to other mainstays for a healthy lifestyle, such as a balanced diet and sleep? Pet ownership is already encouraged by many health professionals. Maybe it will one day be prescribed?