resillience

7 physical and mental health benefits of having a pet

Resilience

21 October 2020

Elderly couple walking and talking

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The UK is a nation of pet lovers. In 2018 45% of households owned a pet, that’s 12 million of us with a furry, scaly of feathered friend.1

However, pets aren’t just fun to have around the house. There are physical and mental health benefits of owning a pet, from keeping us active to helping combat loneliness. We take a look at how they can help you:

1. Pets keep you active

If you own a dog then you know that walking them is part of your daily routine, it not only keeps your dog healthy but also keeps you active. Exercise doesn’t always have to mean a workout at the gym or a 5k run, doing an activity that you would normally do helps contribute towards your recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. 

If you’re not great on your feet, if perhaps your mobility is reduced, then it’s about finding what is right for you. Go at your own pace, and if it means going out for short walks but perhaps twice a day, then your dog (and your health) will be happy either way. 

2. Boost your cardiovascular health

With all those walkies, pets tend to be good for your ticker too.

The American Heart Association undertook 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 thought to be associated with reducing your chances of developing CVD, though they were careful not to overstate this.2

A new study however from 2019, supports this idea of having a pet contributing to a healthy heart. The Kardiozive Brno 2030 study demonstrated an association between dog ownership and heart health, which is in line with the American Heart Association's scientific statement on the benefits of owning a dog in terms of physical activity, engagement and reduction of cardiovascular disease risk.

It compared the cardiovascular health scores of pet owners overall to those who did not own pets. Then it compared dog owners to other pet owners and those who did not own pets and found that “in general people who owned any pet were more likely to report more physical activity, better diet and blood sugar at ideal level”.3

Although a lot of the research focuses on dogs, it’s been found that cats can also help your heart health. In a follow up study by the American Heart Association, they found having a cat is associated with a reduced chance of dying from CVD, especially strokes. They highlighted it’s not just the exercise associated with having a pet that helps you – the stress relief and companionship also have very physical benefits.4

3. Pets make you more sociable

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 and connecting with other people. Whether out on a walk with your dog, at the vets, or buying supplies at a pet shop – they increase the number of off-chance chats and help reduce feelings of isolation.5

Social isolation is a huge health problem, particularly for the elderly. Having a lack of social connections significantly increases the risk of premature mortality, in fact one study suggests it increases the likelihood by 26%.6

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, it 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 can add to your quality of life and boost your everyday mental health.

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 new report by All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cats (APGOCATS), is encouraging people who are struggling with loneliness to spend time with cats, “whether this is through volunteering, fostering, or helping at an animal rescue shelter.”7

5. Boost mental wellbeing

AXA Health’s Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services, Dr Mark Winwood advocates that we should ‘copy our dog’. We’re not asking you to suddenly start barking, but when a dog goes for a walk they tend to be totally in the moment. They’re sniffing around, taking in their surroundings and enjoying being outside. They are present.

Whereas the owner is probably thinking about what bill they have to pay, what to cook for dinner or what the traffic is going to be like when they pick the kids up from school. However, if we adopted a more mindfulness approach and stopped to ‘be’ and appreciate what’s around us, focusing on the present rather than the worries and the ‘what-ifs’, then it can really boost our sense of wellbeing. 

6. Reduce your stress

If you want to try and control your stress levels, own a pet. A survey by Birmingham’s National Pet Show revealed that 98% of pet owners believe their pet helps stop them getting too stressed and 96% believed that children led a happier life when they had a pet.8

Further studies into the link between stress and pets have been conducted by Oxford University. They’ve found owning a pet has the ability to reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, increase physical activity and learning, as well as improving memory. 

7. Increase your happiness

Undertaking activities that spark joy can help boost our happiness. Whether it’s walking the dog or bonding with your pet (no matter the species) the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin are released in the brain, helping raise our mood and giving us a positive physiological effect. 

If the activities we’re doing include the opportunity to bond with others – or even with our pets – the release of another brain chemical, oxytocin, also helps us to feel good. 

These feelgood activities ultimately help us access optimistic mindsets. 

So, if you’re a pet owner yourself, volunteer at animal shelters, or look after your neighbour’s animals when they’re away, pets can really help boost our mental and physical health, make us feel happy, and, unlike a human, they will listen to our problems without talking back.

References

1. Pet Food Manufacturers Association - 45% of households own a pet.

2. The American Heart Association - Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk.  

3. The Kardiozive Brno 2030 study - Dog Ownership and Heart Health.

4. National Center for Biotechnology Information - Pet Ownership and the Risk of Dying from Cardiovascular Disease.

5. Science Direct – Pet owners more likely to have off-chance chats

6. Campaign to end loneliness – Social isolation.

7. All-Party Parliamentary Group on Cats (APGOCATS) - Cats could be the key to beating loneliness.

8. Birmingham’s National Pet Show – Pets Reduce Stress - https://www.thebestofhealth.co.uk/health-conditions/wellbeing/pets-reduce-stress/

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