It’s true, pets can make you happier and healthier but there are some limits to the benefits
By Daryl Austin
Dog has long been called man’s best friend. It is an assessment that is often based on the dog’s behavior: its loyalty, love, and eagerness to please. Pet owners like Sharon Reid of Grand Rapids, Michigan, says she’s experienced such devotion firsthand. “After my husband passed, my dog was the most reliable constant in my life to help me through the difficult months that followed.”
Among the most widely understood and accepted health benefits of pet ownership is that pets provide better coping strategies for stress, can promote greater empathy and compassion, and that their companionship “can protect people from the ravages of loneliness,” says Alan Beck, a professor of animal ecology and the director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University in Indiana.
These benefits are reflected in a recent survey from the American Psychiatric Association, which revealed that 86 percent of owners feel their pets have a mostly positive impact on their mental health; and that some 90 percent consider the animal to be a member of the family.
But understanding the degree to which pets contribute to the mental health and wellbeing of their owners is a matter of some debate among scholars. While most academics agree that certain benefits are well established, others may not be as rooted in scientific evidence as some believe.
Better cardio and mental health from pet ownership
Among the established benefits is that pet/owner interactions can enhance one’s quality of life. Research shows that playing with a dog can improve one’s mood, that reading to a pet can help children with learning development issues, that pets can lessen levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol in their owners, and that having a pet can increase one’s physical activity levels, according to the American Heart Association.
Indeed, Reid says that taking her Australian Shepherd out for a walk is sometimes the only time she devotes to exercise. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that pet-inspired fitness can “decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels.”
There’s also broad consensus on the mental health benefits that come from frequently connecting with another living thing.
“Having a non-judgmental confidant can serve to buffer the effects of stress on both physical and psychological health outcomes,” explains Nancy Gee, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Animals may also improve their owners’ academic performance. “In two separate studies (one with six to eight-year-old children, the other with university students) interacting with a dog increased executive functioning, which is a cluster of processes that allow us to plan and stay on task,” Gee says.
Improved outcomes for the elderly, those with medical conditions
Pet ownership has also been shown to help a wide variety of people, including some dealing with specific mental health conditions.
One study published by the American Psychological Association in the Society of Counseling Psychology’s Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, found that therapy dogs are particularly helpful in reducing symptoms like inattention and diminished social skills related to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Another shows how petting an animal can relieve symptoms of anxiety, and additional research demonstrates how having a pet can increase social behaviors of kids with autism.
A 2022 study shows that victims of PTSD are also buoyed by pet ownership. “Our research has found that having a PTSD service dog is not only associated with less PTSD symptoms for veterans, but is also linked with less anger, less social isolation, and better resilience to stress,” explains Kerri Rodriguez, an assistant professor of human-animal interaction at the College of Veterinary Medicine at The University of Arizona.
It’s also worth noting that some older adults may gain benefits from pet ownership. “The comfort from having pets is especially important for those that have fewer close relationships with friends and family, such as older adults,” says Rodriguez. She notes that having a dog can help the elderly connect with others when they take it out for a walk or a visit to the park. “These small social interactions can be really important to people who experience social isolation in addition to providing vital companionship at home.”
When benefits are overstated
Despite such established benefits, there are cases in which pet ownership may get more credit than it deserves.
“The scientific evidence for the health benefits of pet ownership is overall more mixed than I think is generally perceived by the public,” says Megan Mueller, an associate professor of human-animal interaction at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
For example, Hal Herzog, an emeritus professor of psychology at Western Carolina University, says that people with pets have not been shown to necessarily fare better than non-pet owners during the pandemic as some believed, and that no research has demonstrated that “as a group, pet owners are happier than non-owners.”
Possibly the most frequently overstated benefit of pet ownership is its impact on people who deal with clinical depression. In reviewing 30 peer-reviewed studies measuring an association between pet ownership and depression, Herzog says he found that 18 of them showed “no difference” in depression rates between pet owners and non-owners. “Pet ownership is not a particularly reliable predictor of depressive symptoms,” echoes Mueller.
Matching a pet with the right owner
One thing scholars agree on, however, is that for people who want to own pets, matching the right pet to each owner is essential. Mueller explains that the health benefits of having a pet are more likely determined by the manner of interaction between the owner and animal. “As with people, whether or not you have a partner in life is probably not as good of a predictor of positive outcomes as the quality of that relationship,” she says.
That means choosing the right pet both individually and within a specific breed or species. While the benefits of dog and cat ownership are by far the most studied, other research has been conducted on the health benefits of human-pet interaction with other animals as well. These include fish, guinea pigs, horses, and even pet insects.
In choosing a pet, Mueller advises considering things like the type of activities one likes to do, who else in the home will be impacted by the animal, cost and affordability, one’s goals and objectives, and the amount of time one wants to spend caring for the pet.
“If you love hiking in the woods, perhaps you would be a good match with a high-energy dog” (such as a Border Collie, Boxer, or Jack Russell Terrier) she says. “But if you prefer to hang out on the couch with your pet, you might be better suited for a lower-energy dog, a cat, or a small pet such as a guinea pig.”
Regardless of which animal one chooses, it’s also important to remember most pet owners get out of the relationship what they put in.
“In order to reap the full benefits of pet ownership,” Gee says, “you’ll want to spend time with your pet and actively engage in activities you both enjoy.”
Credit: National Geographic