Scientists have studied the relationship between caring for a pet and the health of pet owners, with regards to both mental and physical benefits.
The results weren’t always uniform and at times were conflicting. Read on if you want to know what the research says about the health benefits of owning a pet.
Pet ownership and mental well-being
Studies have shown that human animal interaction has several health benefits. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology reviewed 69 papers regarding the effect of these interactions on well-being. The researchers suggested that the interaction with pets may reduce stress due to the release of oxytocin, also called the “love hormone” and the lowering of stress hormone levels like cortisol and epinephrine.1 Some of the studies that they reviewed also found a positive effect of pet interactions on the immune system.
Researchers have also studied the effect of having a pet on children. In a 2019 study based on a nationwide cohort study in Japan, the researchers concluded that pet ownership early in life decreases the risk of developmental delays in children. 2
Another study was published in the journal of pediatric research and collected data from 1646 parents. The researchers found that preschoolers who had pet dogs had less peer problems, behavioral problems, and higher prosocial behaviors than others who didn’t have pets.3 But the results of this study were associated with “pet attachment” more than simply “pet ownership.”4 This suggests that having a strong emotional bond with a pet provides more health benefits than pet ownership alone.
These benefits also extend to patients with mental illness. In a review article published in BMC Psychiatry, the researchers concluded that patients with mental illness can reap the same benefits from having a pet as the general population through enhancing their quality of life, especially because of the social isolation and stigma they face.5
Does caring for a pet improve your physical health?
In 2013, The American Heart Association published a statement 6 based on the data from studies about the health benefits of owning a pet on heart disease. The researchers wrote that some, but not all, studies of pet ownership and systemic blood pressure found an association between pet ownership and lower blood pressure. In a 2020 study based on the results of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), researchers found that pet ownership was associated with a lower prevalence of increased blood pressure.7
Less research has been done on the effect of pet ownership and cholesterol and triglyceride levels. A cross-sectional Australian study published in 1992 compared the cardiovascular risk factors of pet owners and non-pet owners who attended a clinic. The researchers found that both men and women pet owners had lower triglyceride levels than non-pet owners.8
Although the results aren’t conclusive as to whether owning a pet encourages you to exercise more, doing so can help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.9,10 This was observed in some studies that showed that dog owners were more likely to exercise than non-dog owners.11,12
Heart attack, stroke, and mortality
A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis13 published in PloS One included 12 studies, and tackled the effect of pet ownership on the risk of heart disease, having a heart attack, or stroke. The studies included were published between 1990 and 2018 and involved a total of 488,986 participants. Dogs or cats were the most common pets included. The researchers concluded that pet ownership did not have a significant association with mortality or risk of heart disease, heart attack, or stroke, and cat owners showed similar risks to dog owners. However, by doing a sub-group analysis, the researchers reported that pet owners had lower mortality from heart disease than the general population.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, based on a nationwide survey in the US, also found no relationship between having a pet and the risk of death. 14
The field of animal human interactions is still young and is limited by the absence of randomized trials to confirm that pet ownership is the cause (rather than just an association) of the different observations among pet owners and non-owners. However, the wealth of available evidence suggests that pet ownership could boost both mental and physical health.
1. Beetz A, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Julius H, Kotrschal K. Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: The possible role of oxytocin. Front Psychol. 2012;3(JUL):234. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234
2. Minatoya M, Araki A, Miyashita C, et al. Cat and dog ownership in early life and infant development: A prospective birth cohort study of Japan environment and children’s study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(1). doi:10.3390/ijerph17010205
3. Wenden EJ, Lester L, Zubrick SR, Ng M, Christian HE. The relationship between dog ownership, dog play, family dog walking, and pre-schooler social–emotional development: findings from the PLAYCE observational study. Pediatr Res. July 2020:1-7. doi:10.1038/s41390-020-1007-2
4. Purewal R, Christley R, Kordas K, et al. Companion animals and child/adolescent development: A systematic review of the evidence. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017;14(3). doi:10.3390/ijerph14030234
5. Brooks HL, Rushton K, Lovell K, et al. The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: A systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence. BMC Psychiatry. 2018;18(1):31. doi:10.1186/s12888-018-1613-2
6. Levine GN, Allen K, Braun LT, et al. Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2013;127(23):2353-2363. doi:10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1
7. Krittanawong C, Kumar A, Wang Z, Jneid H, Virani SS, Levine GN. Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Health in the US General Population. Am J Cardiol. 2020;125(8):1158-1161. doi:10.1016/j.amjcard.2020.01.030
8. Anderson WP, Reid CM, Jennings GL. Pet ownership and risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Med J Aust. 1992;157(5):298-301. doi:10.5694/j.1326-5377.1992.tb137178.x
9. Exercise: A drug-free approach to lowering high blood pressure – Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/in-depth/high-blood-pressure/art-20045206. Accessed October 10, 2020.
10. Mann S, Beedie C, Jimenez A. Differential effects of aerobic exercise, resistance training and combined exercise modalities on cholesterol and the lipid profile: review, synthesis and recommendations. Sport Med. 2014;44(2):211-221. doi:10.1007/s40279-013-0110-5
11. Cherniack EP, Cherniack AR. Assessing the benefits and risks of owning a pet. CMAJ. 2015;187(10):715-716. doi:10.1503/cmaj.150274
12. Westgarth C, Christley RM, Jewell C, German AJ, Boddy LM, Christian HE. Dog owners are more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than people without a dog: An investigation of the association between dog ownership and physical activity levels in a UK community. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):1-10. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-41254-6
13. Yeh TL, Lei W Te, Liu SJ, Chien KL. A modest protective association between pet ownership and cardiovascular diseases: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2019;14(5). doi:10.1371/JOURNAL.PONE.0216231
14. Gillum RF, Obisesan TO. Living with companion animals, physical activity and mortality in a U.S. national cohort. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2010;7(6):2452-2459. doi:10.3390/ijerph7062452
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