How Being a Pet Parent Is Good for Your Health · The Wildest

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6 Science-Backed Ways Being a Pet Parent Improves Your Health

They say laughter is the best medicine, but so is a pet (especially one who makes you laugh).

by Laura Hartle
December 14, 2023
A woman with black hair surrounded by cats cuddling her
Illustration by Roselyne Cazazian
The letter "W" from the Wildest logo

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Picture it: You walk into your home, defeated by a rough day. You’re ready to become one with your couch cushions and take in some bad TV and even worse takeout. Then, your pet snuggles up to you and alters the alchemy of your mood. 

So often, our pets are just what the doctor ordered to turn a bad day around. But it’s not just because of those warm, fuzzy feelings our pets give us. Scientifically speaking, those feelings are caused by oxytocin, aka the “love hormone,” which reduces stress, increases pain threshold, and stimulates positive social interaction. Studies show that interaction with our pets boosts this hormone, transforming cuddle time with a pup or cat into a literal dose of happiness that affects our overall wellbeing.

To go even deeper, it seems we are hard-wired to experience health benefits from the relationship with the dogs and cats in our lives. “These animals co-evolved with us,” Dr. Greg Fricchione, assistant chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, tells The Wildest. “As mammals, we share the survival strategy of social attachment, something we have brain structures, transmitters, and hormones (like oxytocin) to promote. We share these structures and chemical messengers with dogs, and this makes our bonding more likely. And, it is this bonding that promotes our health and wellbeing.”

With this primal human-animal connection, it’s no wonder that our health has a symbiotic relationship with our pets. Want to know more ways your pet is the medicine for what ails you? Read on for other science-backed evidence that your furry friend is good for your mind, body, and soul.

Increased physical activity

It’s no secret that exercise is one of the pillars of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but sneaking it into your daily routine can feel like a chore. Recommended moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for children aged six to 17 clocks in at 60 minutes a day, while adults should aim for 150 to 300 minutes per week, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

Luckily for dog parents, all of those minutes logged playing with and walking your pup benefit you both! A 2008 study found that dog parents were a whopping 55 to 77 percent more likely to reach their recommended amount of physical activity than those who did not.

This trend continues as people age. A 2021 study from Sweden showed that parenting a dog made adults in their seventies twice as likely to meet their physical activity recommendation. So, put some pep in your step during your daily walk with your dog to keep your pup and your FitBit happy.

Lower blood pressure

We know that petting your dog or cat gets that feel-good oxytocin hormone bubbling, but did you know that getting in those daily good-boy/good-girl scratches also lowers your blood pressure? Another study that tested whether visual, verbal, or tactile interaction had the most profound effect on blood pressure, showed that participants’ blood pressure and heart rate were at their lowest when touching a dog. 

And, it’s not just a lower baseline that pet parents benefit from. A study from 2002 that observed 240 married couples (half being pet parents) found that the pet parents had a measurably smaller increase from blood pressure and heart rate baseline and a quicker recovery.

Reduced stress and anxiety

The cure for a ball of stress? A ball of fluff. Stress brings on that dreaded flight-or-fight response: heart rate, breathing, and sweat production all increase. And while that’s helpful if, say, you’re being chased by a tiger, long-term stress is detrimental to your overall health, including contributing to high blood pressure, stroke, digestive issues, and an increased vulnerability to cancer. In hormone-speak, this stress increase raises a person’s cortisol levels.

As the main stress hormone, cortisol causes a spike in glucose in the bloodstream and slows functions, such as the digestive system, reproductive system, and growth processes. But not to worry: Pet parents already have a built in support system. A study of Washington State University students (definitely a stressed bunch!) showed that petting a dog or cat significantly decreased their cortisol levels. So, even if you don’t have a pet, you can still experience the stress-reduction benefits with just 10 minutes of petting a dog or cat acquaintance.

Improved cardiovascular health

We know that loving a pet fills your heart, but did you know it can make your heart healthier? In a study of 4,435 participants, cat parents were shown to have a decreased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and stroke. Not only that, previous cat parenting was shown to still have benefits at the time of testing, compared to those participants who had never had a pet.

And let’s not forget about canine companions! They are also heart-healthy, according to a Swedish study, which included a 12-year follow up period, that demonstrated a decreased risk of myocardial infarction, ischemic stroke, and heart failure. 

Better immune function

When it comes to your pet prescription, the science points to start ‘em young! Not only does exposure to dogs and cats have the possibility to reduce the incidence of allergies and asthma in children, it also may have the power to strengthen their immune systems. While parents might balk at the idea of germs, those microorganisms introduced to a household through a pet’s outdoor exposure can benefit a family’s microbiome, giving a child’s immune system the blueprint to deal with future germ invaders.

And speaking of sending your immune system reinforcements, one study concluded that petting a dog for 18 minutes increased the presence of immunoglobulin A (IgA) in the saliva of participants. This important antibody is present in the body’s mucous membranes and helps the immune system identify and kick germs to the curb. As far as respiratory benefits pet parents can breathe a sigh of relief, a study from JAMA Pediatrics in 2015 concluded that exposure to dogs within the first year of life corresponded with a decrease in the risk of asthma in children. 

Improved cognitive function

If you’ve brought a pet into your home, congratulations; you’ve already made a smart choice. But, did you know there are actual smarty-pants benefits to being a pet parent? During the “Alabama Brain Study on Risk for Dementia,” researchers studied participants aged 20 to 74, about 50 percent of whom were pet parents. The study found that pet parenting was linked to larger brain structures and higher levels of cognition. (Bragging rights go to dogs because these effects were most prominent in dog parents!).

Pet parents showed elevated processing speed, episodic memory for stories, attention orienting (the ability to focus resources during a given time period to optimize behavior), and more. Want to feel younger? The study also shows that pet parenthood can reduce a person’s brain age up to 15 years. Bet you didn’t expect anti-aging benefits, too.

Laura Hartle, holding a dog in her lap

Laura Hartle

Laura is a writer, podcast producer, and gummy bear enthusiast. Her prior work in the pup realm includes creating and producing BarkPost’s viral video series, Dog’s Best Day, and helping dogs and cats get adopted as the senior producer of Animal Planet’s Give a Dog a Home Live. She shares her New York apartment with her dogs, June and Mabel.

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