The bond between humans and animals is undeniable. For many people, these gentle creatures are more than just pets — they have become important members of the family. As Hall of Fame basketball player turned TNT analyst, Charles Barkley, once hilariously put it: ‘dogs are like family members that don’t ask for money.’ But all kidding aside, there are many benefits of owning a dog: they guard your home, play with your kids, and more importantly, they help with your emotional wellbeing.
Most pet owners know the instant joys that come with caring for an animal. However, many remain unaware of the physical and mental health attributes that can also accompany the pleasure of snuggling up to our furball friends.
Pets have evolved to become acutely attuned to human behavior and emotions. Dogs are able to understand many of the words we use and they are even better at interpreting our tone of voice, body language, and gestures. And like any good friend, a loyal dog will look you in the eyes to gauge your emotional state and try to understand what you’re thinking and feeling.
Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress levels, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve your cardiovascular health. Caring for an animal can help children grow up more secure and active. Pets also provide valuable companionship for older adults. Perhaps most importantly, though, a pet can add real joy and unconditional love to your life.
Here are 15 great examples:
1. THEY LOWER YOUR STRESS HORMONES
Studies show that playing with pets for a few minutes daily reduces stress-related hormones. This activity raises our serotonin and dopamine levels and drops cortisol numbers which in turn calm and relax the nervous system. Every time we smile or laugh at our pets, we stimulate and release what they call ‘happy hormones.’
2. THEY PROTECT KIDS AGAINST ANXIETY
According to a study by the CDC, pets may help kids suffering from anxiety. They studied around 600 children and observed that children that don’t have a dog are more likely to develop anxiety than their pet-owning peers. The study concluded that children who grow up with pets may have a better chance of being happier and healthier teenagers.
Pets are never critical and don’t give orders, unlike parents and teachers. Having an ever-present pet can help ease separation anxiety in children when parents aren’t around. So go ahead and adopt that puppy you’ve been eyeing at the local rescue shelter. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s worth all the trouble.
3. THEY MAKE YOU FEEL NEEDED
Most people suffering from mental illness often have feelings of loss and uselessness. Pets are a good way of preventing this because caring for another living thing gives us a sense of purpose and meaning. A 2016 South Korean study found that giving elderly people pets for a few weeks improved their overall mood and reduced their depression and loneliness.
4. THEY INCREASE YOUR SELF-ESTEEM AND WELL-BEING
The American Psychological Association published 3 different studies made by Saint Louis University and the University of Miami. In the first study, 217 pet owners were found to be healthier and better adjusted than non-owners. In the second experiment, 56 dog owners said that dogs increased their self-esteem and sense of meaning. In the third study, researchers found that pets can help young people feel better after experiencing pain and rejection.
5. THEY TEACH YOU TO ‘BE IN THE MOMENT’
The one great thing about having pets that are rarely mentioned is they always live in the moment. They aren’t concerned about the past and they are not worried about the future. This is one quality that we can learn from them: mindfulness. Our furry friends can help us enjoy and appreciate the present.
6. THEY SUPPORT RECOVERY FROM ILLNESS
Actor Mickey Rourke famously thanked his dogs during his acceptance speech for the Best Actor at the Golden Globes in 2009 for his performance in the movie, The Wrestler. In an interview, he told Barbara Walters that “the dogs were there when no one else was there.” When he was at rock bottom, he said he realized, “I don’t have kids. The dogs became everything to me. The dog was looking at me going, ‘Who’s going to take care of me?'”
“Pets provide a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which people are not often receiving from their families or relationships,” said Dr. Helen Brooks.
7. THEY HELP YOU BUILD HEALTHY HABITS
Just the simple act of getting up in the morning is so important for people suffering from depression and other mental illnesses. Dogs and other similar pets need to be fed, walked, and cleaned up no matter what mood you are in. They also provide humans with a good excuse for people to get some fresh air and sunlight outdoors.
8. THEY HELP IMPROVE RELATIONSHIP SKILLS
Pets make socializing easier for children. One study noted that children with autism were more social when given a pet to play with than those kids who were only given toys. Plus, the kids laughed more and showed fewer signs of stress.
9. THEY HELP ENCOURAGE SOCIAL CONNECTION
Another byproduct of having pets is it supports social connection. The seemingly simple act of walking a dog daily opens the door to more interactions and conversations with other dog owners. Thus, owners develop better self-esteem, improved cognitive function, and more feeling of trust and empathy towards other people.
10. THEY MAKE US FEEL LESS ALONE
As humans age, we lose things that previously occupied our time and gave us purpose. You may have retired from your career or your children may have moved far away. Caring for a dog can bring pleasure and help boost your morale, optimism, and sense of self-worth.
11. THEY HELP US RECOVER FROM ILLNESS
Researchers at the University of California at Davis concluded that Alzheimer’s patients suffer less stress and have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a dog or cat in the home. The playful interaction and gentle touch from a well-trained, docile animal can help soothe an Alzheimer’s patient and decrease aggressive behavior—as can simply being exposed to bright aquariums or fish tanks.
12. THEY ENCOURAGE US TO EXERCISE
A study at the Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago found that walking a dog helped their owners shed unwanted pounds. Researchers found that the dogs provided support in similar ways to a human exercise buddy, but with greater consistency and without any negative influence.
13. THEY CAN BOOST YOUR VITALITY
You can overcome many of the physical challenges associated with aging by taking good care of yourself. Dogs, cats, and other pets encourage playfulness, laughter, and exercise, which can help boost your immune system and increase your energy.
14. THEY CAN HELP PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES
Some people with autism or other learning difficulties are better able to interact with pets than people. They often rely on nonverbal cues to communicate, just as animals do. And learning to first connect with a pet may even help an autistic person in their interactions with people.
15. THEY GIVE YOU UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
Lastly, the best of the many benefits of having a dog is that it will love you no matter who you are. That’s a good reason enough.