Pet ownership comes with plenty of proven perks. Animals, especially dogs, have earned the title “man’s best friend” by offering loyalty, companionship, and unconditional love in ways that humans just can’t. Now, a growing body of research suggests pet ownership also comes with some welcome health benefits.
“Pets can be a lot of fun for families, but on a scientific level, we’re discovering that having a pet in the house alters your physical, emotional and mental health,” says Christine Cole Johnson, PhD, MPH, chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Henry Ford Health. In fact, just having a pet in your physical space changes the environment in positive ways.
Here, 5 reasons why adding a furry friend to the family can be just what the doctor ordered.
- A lower risk of allergies. Babies born into homes with pets— particularly dogs and cats—are less likely to develop allergies. The reason: Pets track in dust, bugs and (gasp) the occasional rodent, so there’s more dirt and allergens in the home environment, which ironically, is good for a child’s developing gut. Studies show that dogs change the physical environment in such a way that babies’ immune systems respond positively, leaving them healthier overall. That said, it’s not wise to bring a dog or cat into a household in which someone already has pet allergies.
- Smoother social connections. Pets are an instant icebreaker, whether they’re by your side at the dog park or just serving as a conversation starter. What often starts as a chat about your dogs grows into a real, human connection. A bonus: With the growing number of training classes, dog parks, and outdoor, pet-friendly cafes, the opportunities to meet up with like-minded animal lovers are seemingly limitless.
- Enhanced heart health. Pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels—all of which can help prevent heart disease. Even people who have already suffered a heart attack can benefit, with quicker recovery rates. Why the surprising stats? Pets seem to help their owners better manage stress.
- Daily personal-training sessions. Most dogs need walking, so they act as built-in motivation for their owners to get moving. As long as you’re the one holding the leash, you can expect a boost in your activity level. Add a trip or two to the dog park in the mix—complete with a few rounds of fetch—and you could clock in a solid 45-minute workout.
- Improved mood. There’s a reason dogs, cats and even parrots are increasingly showing up in hospitals and nursing homes. Studies show being around animals helps reduce anxiety and combat feelings of loneliness.
In addition to offering a slew of health benefits, the daily care, feeding, and cleaning of pets helps teach children responsibility.
“But pet ownership isn’t something to jump into lightly,” says Johnson. “It’s a long-term, and often expensive, relationship,” so think carefully and choose the right pet at the right time for you and your family.
Most importantly, families must remember that no matter how calm and sweet natured you feel your pet is, it’s still essentially an animal with instincts you can’t always predict. As dogs age, for example, they can become more territorial and snap at people—and even bite unsuspecting children. Being a responsible pet owner means following the rules of your town or city, such as keeping dogs on a leash.
Dr. Christine Johnson is the chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences at Henry Ford. She is also the director of the Henry Ford Health Center for Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Research.