8 physical and mental health benefits of having a pet

5 June 2017

The UK is a nation of pet lovers. In 2016 almost one in four households owned a dog and 17% had a cat.

A growing body of studies confirms that pets aren’t just fun to have around the house – there is health-boosting power among our furry, scaly or feathered friends.

Here are a few of the physical and mental health benefits of having a pet:

  1. Pets keep you active
    It’s no surprise that owning a pet – particularly a dog – makes you more active, but the list of health benefits that come with that might surprise. Older adults who own a dog have a lower body mass index, make fewer visits to the doctor and do more exercise. Research also shows that the stronger your bond with your pooch, the more likely you are to walk, and spend longer walking.
  2. Boost your cardiovascular health
    With all those walkies, pets tend to be good for your ticker too.
    The American Heart Association undertook a big piece of research looking at how owning pets affects your chance of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) – these are conditions that affect your heart and blood, such as stroke or coronary heart disease.
    Researchers found that having a pet – a dog, in particular – is probably associated with reducing your chances of developing CVD, though they were careful not to overstate this. In a follow-up study researchers again looked at how having a dog or cat affected your health, and this time felines came up trumps. They found that having a cat is associated with a reduced chance of dying from CVD, especially strokes. This shows that it’s not just the exercise associated with having a pet that helps you – the stress relief and companionship also have very physical benefits.
  3. Pets make you more sociable
    Even though you might feel grumpy sometimes and think you like quiet, humans are social animals. It’s important for our physical and mental health to have contact with other people – and our four-legged friends are a brilliant way to get you talking.
    Pets don’t just increase the number of off-chance chats you have, they also help people trust you and are brilliant ice-breakers.
    Social isolation is a huge health problem, particularly for the elderly. In fact, social isolation can increase your chances of dying early. So, what may seem like a trivial chat over the garden wall when looking for your cat or in the park when walking your dog, can be hugely significant for your mental and physical health.
  4. Pets stop loneliness in its tracks
    It’s not just that pets help you build a wider social network – many people have pets as companions. They make you happy, give you a routine and are great company – all of which adds your quality of life and boosts your everyday mental health.
    Pets mirror some of the benefits that human relationships have on your health, which can be particularly helpful for people who find themselves alone. What’s more, relationships with your pets are less likely to have the ups and downs that you get with humans, making them much more consistent.
    Having a friendly face at home isn’t just a nice-to-have – it can help you stave off common mental health problems caused at least in some part by loneliness. A 2009 study found that pet-owners over the age of 60 who lived alone were four times less likely to develop clinical depression compared with people who didn’t have pets.
  5. Support wellbeing
    Given all the above, it is unsurprising that pet owners are more satisfied with life compared with those with no pets. And, if the link with dogs and heart health was less direct compared with cats, they make up for it with wellbeing – dog owners score more highly for all aspects of wellbeing compared with their feline friends.
  6. Help you manage long-term mental health issues
    As well as protecting your mental wellbeing, pets can also help you manage long-term mental health problems. Pets are a valuable source of support for those managing long-term conditions, providing a welcome distraction from symptoms or upsetting experiences and lots of encouragement. As with the above, pets also give people some much-needed companionship and support especially where other relationships might be limited or strained.
  7. Reduce your stress
    If you want to try and control your stress levels, go and chat to your pet.
    Research from Buffalo University in New York found that pet owners reacted less to stress – and recovered from it much quicker – when their pets were present. And that’s not all – another study took 48 people with high blood pressure and high stress jobs. Researchers measured how they responded to stress before the test. Then, some of them bought a pet and six months later researchers again measured their response to stress. The results were interesting: after 6 months pet owners had less of a physical response to stress compared with those who didn’t have a four-legged friend.
  8. Protects against allergies
    One of the things that puts some people off having pets is allergies. It doesn’t matter how much pleasure a pooch might bring if it also comes with a runny nose and itchy eyes. The answer to that is to buy a pet for the kids as exposure to pets between the ages of zero and four years old reduces the chances of you developing allergies, such as asthma and eczema.

Further reading

5 ways to help build resilience

How to really love your heart