Man’s Best Friend: How Pets Enhance our Health & Wellbeing

I think that most of us can agree that taking care of a pet is not a small task and is major responsibility, no matter the animal. But did ever consider that your pets might also be taking care of you? 

Over the years, researchers have been interested in how pets contribute towards health and wellbeing of their owners. 

Our furry friends actually do provide a wide variety of health benefits to us, helping us physiologically, psychologically and psychosocially.

So, what kind of effects do they have on you?

1. Reduce loneliness

Among many benefits, the most frequent one you tend to hear is that pets make good companions. Is this true? Absolutely. Studies indicate a positive link between pet ownership and lower levels of loneliness. Pets often provide a source of unconditional and non-judgemental affection towards their owners that sometimes can be lacking in human relationships. Nebbe (2001) states that pets can satisfy the owner’s self-worth and need to be loved as they possess qualities such as accepting, openly affectionate, honest, loyal and consistent. Thus, encouraging a strong attachment between owner and pet. 

Pets are also a source of intrinsic rewards, as we engage, play, rest and spontaneously interact with one another. This leads to a greater quality of life for both pet and owner. They are also a form of strong emotional support in times of grief or hardship as pets are consistently present during these periods. Some children even form strong emotional bonds with their pets when social support from friends and family are lacking. These attachment with our pets can lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation. 

2. Reduce blood pressure

Pets owners have also been found to have lower blood pressures than non-pet owners when confronted with a stressor or complex task. Research has shown that dog owners in particular exhibit lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure when making a public speech or solving difficult arithmetic questions. Simply stroking your pets have been found to decrease blood pressure and cholesterol levels. They also report lower levels of subjective anxiety. Meaning pets can play a role in mediating the body’s response to stress.  

3. Greater physical and social engagement

Pets are also a great means for us to engage in more physical activity and social interaction. Studies have found that pets have been positively associated with greater social engagements between pet owners, neighbours and the wider community. Pet owners are more likely to come into contact with others from their neighbourhood while out with their pet. This leads to more friendly banter and conversations between pet owners and those in their community. The majority of pet owners reveal they got to know others within their local community through their pets. 

Pet owners, specifically dog owners tend to engage in more physical activity by dog walking and visiting public parks. They were found more likely to spend at least 150 minutes a week walking their dogs or performing physical activities on their free time. Doing so helps them reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Survival rates of dog owners are also found to be higher than those of non-pet owners after a medical emergency. Hence, pets can facilitate in encouraging social interaction within our communities as well as increasing one’s physical activity. To put simply, pets are a great way to meet and interact with new people within your neighbourhood as well as increase our physical activity outside.

4. Reduce the impact of mental and physical illness

Since the 1990s, mental health providers and practitioners have examined the role of domesticated animals as companions for in-house patients ranging from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, cancer, AIDS and even disability. Often paired with either the young or elderly, these amazing animals have proceeded to be excellent companions and provide therapeutic effects across different health conditions. 

Cherniack and Cherniack (2014) found that pets improved the cognitive function and sociability of elderly nursing home residents with dementia. They also found fewer signs of agitation among residents. Residents paired with animals were found to be engage in more verbal and social behaviours such as smiling and speaking. These animals help relieve boredom among residents and staff as well as help foster social interaction with others. Meanwhile cancer patients report feeling pets have helped lessen their fears, loneliness and despair while undergoing treatment. These animals also help individuals suffering from anxiety shift their focus away from themselves and disturbing thoughts and concerns. 

Researchers theorize that interactions between owners and their pets help activate the body’s oxytocin system. Oxytocin, most commonly referred to as the ‘love hormone’ is important for forming trust and bonding with others. It can lower blood pressure, anxiety, stress and depressive symptoms. It also increases social interaction, self-confidence, memory and learning. A single interaction with our pet releases oxytocin, with its effect strengthened with every interaction and bonding activities.  

It is without a doubt that pets can bring profound and healthy changes to our daily lives. They not only enhance our emotional and physical wellbeing, but also our quality of life. If you willing to let a companion into your life, you can try contacting animal shelters and NGOs such as PAWS or SPCA. Other organizations doing amazing work with these animals are the Malaysian Animal Assisted Therapy for the Disabled and Elderly Association (PETPOSITIVE) and Dr.Dog Malaysia. They provide these animals with the purpose of reaching out and providing a sense of comfort and happiness to the elderly, disabled and young as well as bringing positive changes to their lives.