Animals Are Good for You

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @TemmaEhrenfeld
April 11, 2022
Dog looking at woman surfer at the beach --- Image by © Ben Welsh/Corbis

Pets can be a buffer against loneliness, and owning a dog or cat may actually lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Here's what you should know.

We’ve been bonding with animals for eons — as far back as 12,000 years ago, when a human was buried with its hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup. Going back even further in time, the teamwork of the earliest humans and wolves hunting large ice-age mammals may have given us the edge over our main rivals, according to a book, “The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.” Today, two-thirds of all U.S. households include pets.


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I live in a neighborhood of New York City in which dog walkers can charge as much as $40 a walk, demand is so high. There are pet supply stores on every other block. Single people, who are common here and usually live alone, seem to benefit most from a pet dog. Whether sedate or bouncy, dogs can dissolve loneliness, as they run up to greet you at the door and pull you outdoors, where you may find yourself easily striking up conversations with other dog-walkers.

But pets aren’t just good for singles. In a study, 240 married couples who owned a dog or cat had lower heart rates and blood pressure, both at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than pet-free couples. Pet owners also seemed to have milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend. Pets may help people bounce back from social rejection.

Simply having canine company, even if you’re not playing, can calm your body. One study had participants bring their dogs to the office. They showed measurably less stress as the day went along, while those without a canine companion felt more stressed by the end of the day. When the dog-owners couldn’t bring their dogs, their stress pattern followed the norm.

In 2013, the American Heart Association reported that after weighing a variety of studies, its panel had concluded that owing a pet — especially a dog — is good for your heart. In part because dog-owners walk more, they have lower blood pressure, and lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, a bad fat, in their blood.

Follow a vet’s advice to vaccinate your dog and care for it properly, both for the dog’s health and your own — dog ailments like ringworm can spread to humans. Your dog can bring ticks carrying Lyme disease into the house. Another risk is allergies, particularly if you develop asthma symptoms. Owning a dog seems to make you more likely to develop allergies to dogs.

There’s less science showing that cats are good for your health, but if cats calm and delight you, you have your answer. Cat allergies are about twice as common as dog allergies, and easy to pick up even if you don’t live with a cat now. Once you do, you may find allergic reactions developing over time, or they may come on suddenly, after many years. Special cat food can cut the key allergen in cat dander, but washing your cat isn’t useful.

Many people choose to live with a stuffed nose rather than give up a cat. You can reduce your exposure to allergens by using air purifiers, keeping your cat out of your bedroom, and having other people clean the litterbox. Don’t listen to breeders who claim a cat is “hypoallergenic.”

Some people are less allergic to rabbits. We tend to think of rabbits as animals that live in hutches, but house rabbits can be companions that sit beside you and frolic at dawn and dusk.

Before you buy a dog, cat, or rabbit, think about adopting one in an animal shelter and be sure you’re serious — these pets can live for more than a decade. Each year, more than 6 million animals enter shelters nationwide, and about 920,000 of them are killed, according to the ASPCA.


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April 11, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN