It's true - owning a pet makes you happier and healthier
Whether you've been lucky enough to receive a pet as a Christmas gift this year or have finally decided to get a new puppy or kitten for the family, there's no denying that owning a pet can be really rewarding, and fun. It can also be expensive and lots of work, so make sure you're committed before you pick up your new best friend!
One thing many of us don't think about are the health benefits that our pets provide us with. Sure, you know your dog makes you happy when he greets you at the door after work, and you love cosying up with your cat to watch your favourite TV show, but did you know that there are a whole host of other health benefits that our pets can provide? Whether you're a crazy cat lady or a devoted dog lover, we've delved into the world of furry friends to find out how owning a pet can benefit your health and well-being.
Pets can reduce your risk of asthma and allergies
If you or your children suffer from allergies, you may have been led to believe that having pets is a bad idea. In fact, according to researcher James E. Gern, a paediatrician from the University of Wisconsin, children who have grown up in a home with a pet actually have a reduced risk of asthma and allergies (1).
For his study, Gern looked at the blood of a group of babies at birth and again one year later, to see if there was evidence of changes to their immune system and allergic reactions. The results showed that those who lived in a home with dogs were less likely to have pet allergies, with just 19% of infants affected (compare to 33% from pet-free homes). Children who grew up with dogs were less likely to have eczema and it's thought that greater exposure to allergens and dirt can strengthen a baby's immune system.
Pets are great for stress
Owning a dog or cat can help to reduce your stress levels and can even lower your blood pressure. A study of stockbrokers suffering from high blood pressure showed that those who adopted a dog or cat had lower blood pressure when faced with stressful situations than those who didn't have a pet (2).
When we're stressed, chemicals such as norepinephrine and cortisol are released into the body, which can have a negative impact on our wellbeing and our immune systems. A link has been discovered between the release of these stress-related chemicals and a buildup of plaque in the arteries, which could lead to heart disease. Reducing your levels of stress could therefore help to protect your heart. Enjoyable activities, such as playing with your cat or dog, could cause levels of dopamine and serotonin (the 'happy' hormone) to rise in your body, helping you to feel calm and happy.
Pets can help keep your heart healthy
We know that eating a healthy diet low in saturated fat can help to protect your heart, but did you know that owning a pet can be just as beneficial for heart health? Studies show that heart attack patients with pets live for longer than those who don't own an animal. In addition, men who own pets show fewer signs of heart disease than non-pet owners (3).
Pets can help you find love
Having a pet can act as a great icebreaker if you are shy or struggle to meet new people. Walking your dog in the park instantly gives you something in common with other pet owners, whilst other great places to strike up conversation include at pet activity groups, at the vets, or even at dog and cat cafes, which can be found in many major cities across the UK.
Pets help you keep fit
Walking your dog in all weather can help you to stay fit and healthy, and a study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) showed that pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than those who don't have a furry friend. If you're lucky enough to own a dog, why not go for a jog or morning run together? Take a bike ride, or head for an agility training sessions – your dog will love it, and it will keep you fit too!
Dogs are the perfect personal trainer, and a study of over 2,000 adults revealed that dog owners who regularly take responsibility for walking their dogs are less likely to be obese than those who pass the job off to someone else, or non-dog owners (4).
Pets help you beat the blues
Whether you're suffering from SAD or have been battling the blues throughout the year, getting a pet can definitely help to improve your mental health. Not only do cats, dogs and other pets offer unconditional love, they also help to give you a sense of responsibility and purpose, which you need if you're feeling blue. The companionship provided by pets can boost your mood and leave you feeling happier. This is even more evident amongst vulnerable people such as the elderly, and it explains why pet therapy is often used in hospitals and care homes.
Getting a pet of any kind is a major decision, particularly if you're considering a dog or a cat, as they can live for 15 years or more! So take the time to think carefully about whether a pet could fit into your lifestyle, and whether you can afford the associated costs such as food and vets bills, before you get a pet. Remember that you don't always have to get a cute puppy or kitten; there are thousands of homeless animals in shelters across the UK looking for a new home - one of them could be yours, and you could start to enjoy the health benefits above!
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