I have a new family member – a 14-week-old puppy named, Daisy. In the spirit of how much she has added to my life already, I thought I’d share some health insights and scientific research on how animals benefit our mental and physical health.
When I first began writing this blog, I originally had ‘dogs’ in the title place of animals, but I shortly discovered that many of the studies applied equally well to any animals that we develop a bond with.
So here’s 5 reasons why animals are good for your health, with accompanying scientific research where available to back them up, plus a few extra specific benefits at the end (for children with autism spectrum disorder and children at risk of developing allergies).
1) Animals are good for the heart
Several studies have found that pet ownership decreases blood pressure. This may be due in part to the effects of oxytocin, which as well as being a reproductive hormone is also a cardioprotective hormone – that is, it helps protects the cardiovascular system. Affectionate and playful interactions generate oxytocin – the bonding hormone (I also call it the kindness hormone in my books on kindness).
A study published in the leading journal, Science, found that 30 minutes of such interaction between humans and dogs elevated oxytocin levels by over 300% in humans and by around 150% in dogs. This may part-explain a study that found that the risk of a second heart attack within one year of a first was around significantly less in dog owners. In the study of around 400 people, only one dog owner (from 87) died within the year compared with 19 (from 282) who did not have a dog.
And one study of almost 4,000 healthy adults found that having a dog or a cat significantly reduced the risk of death from stroke or cardiovascular disease, with the effects stronger in women than in men, and with cats rather than dogs. The researchers suggested that the benefits were less likely to have come from physical exercise, but from the stress-relieving effects of having an animal companion.
2) Animals are good for mental health
Animals are companions to us. They bond with us and give us comfort. They help many people feel connected where their circumstances might otherwise leave them feeling alone.
Studies have shown that the COVID-19 pandemic increased feelings of loneliness, and especially in older adults (defined as over 60 years old), yet, a study of 466 older adults found that daily dog walks counteracted the effects.
Therapy dogs also make regular visits to hospitals, care homes and hospices and they help lift the spirits of the patients they visit. Some people even find comfort in watching fish swim in a large tank.
3) Dogs give you exercise
Daily dog walks are an excellent source of exercise. I remember when I had my dog, Oscar (who passed away in 2014), I lost 4 kilos (9 pounds) in weight over a few months through walking about 20-25 miles a week.
Playful interaction around the home also reduces the likelihood of sitting around too much, improving circulation and also providing some regular short-form exercise.
Multiple research studies have now confirmed that dog owners are significantly more likely to meet recommended levels of daily exercise than the general population, with some studies suggesting dog owners get almost double the amount of exercise than non dog owners.
ps: for the record: although many studies refer to dog or pet ‘ownership’, I see sharing our lives with animals as a privilege. They are family members and not animals that we own. However, in the interest of sharing the scientific study data as it is presented, I have occasionally used those terms here.
4) They make us laugh
I have laughed out loud every day since Daisy arrived in our lives. Her playful puppy antics are a constant source of entertainment.
Until she arrived, I hadn’t realised how serious I could be all the time as I sit at my desk writing, researching, studying, or responding to emails. And when I’m not doing those things, I’d be talking about them in the home. But Daisy has short-circuited the seriousness and introduced play in its place.
I fondly recall several years ago when Oscar taught me a lesson in not taking things so seriously. He wanted to play but I was using my laptop on the sofa, determined to finish one more email. So he jumped up and pushed it right out of my lap onto the floor. The screen broke when it landed, but I ended up laughing because his tale was wagging so strongly that it was slapping me on the side of the head.
5) They remind us to live for the moment
Dogs don’t ruminate over the past nor worry about the future. They’re just here, now, responding to whatever the moment brings. They can be such a welcome reminder as they shine a light on how us humans don’t do that.
We spend large amounts of our mental time in the past or future. Yet it’s the present that best serves our mental and physical health.
Towards the end of his life, Oscar had a hind leg amputated. He had bone cancer (osteosarcoma) and we had tried everything to save him. Amputation was the last resort. We were traumatised by it, and especially when we had to hold a towel around his hind region in the middle of the night to help him balance when he was emerging from the effects of the anaesthetic! But when he came around, he hardly noticed. Truly.
Next morning, he had a look at the space where his leg had been, had a wee sniff, then got up and went to the garden to pee. He then picked up his ball, enthusiastically presented it to me and we then played together in the garden for the next while. He just got on with being himself. It was so enlightening.
Most of us humans would naturally dwell on what had happened and how it will affect our lives. Dogs just get on with it. Of course, this is not to take anything away from human suffering following traumatic events, only to perhaps point us towards the way dogs handle things.
There are some many other, more specific benefits of having animals in our lives. Here’s a few examples.
In a study of children with autism spectrum disorder, just playing with guinea pigs in their classroom for ten minutes caused a reduction in anxiety and improved their social interactions.
When researchers compared the childrens’ ANS activity (as measure of anxiety) in four conditions: a) reading silently, b) reading aloud in the classroom, c) free play with children and toys, and d) free play with children and guinea pigs, there was increased ANS activity in the children in the first three conditions, but 43% decreased ANS activity in the presence of the animals.
Animals may even reduce the likelihood of allergies in young children at higher risk of developing allergies. A study of over 400 such children living in inner city environments, found that allergens from pets (dust, hair, bacteria, etc) had a protective effect for them and reduced their likelihood of developing asthma by 7 years of age.
Other supporting research has pointed toward a wide spectrum of bacteria in dirt brought into the home by dogs on their paws that helps protect against allergies.
There are plenty more reasons why animals are good for our health, but in the interests of keeping this a relatively short read, I thought I’d stop it here and perhaps consider listing some other reasons in another blog sometime.
Wherever you are today, be kind. It’s almost always the right thing to do. And try to extend that kindness to animals as well as humans.
Copyright 2021 David R. Hamilton PhD.