They are among us. They are everywhere. They don’t wear lab coats or scrubs. They don’t hold degrees from prestigious institutions. They don’t speak medical jargon. They don’t carry a stethoscope, tongue depressor, or reflex hammer with them.
Instead, they wear specialized uniforms made from fur, feathers, or scales. They are good listeners and are easy to talk to. Their reputation in patient privacy and medical secrecy is unparalleled. They are always present in the moment and maintain a positive attitude. They are empathetic, loyal, and trustworthy (for the most part). They are uniquely talented yet tend to go by seemingly unassuming names such as Buddy, Molly, Toby, or Spot.
Their scope of practice is broad. They help their human patients throughout their lifespan—from infancy to old age. They guard the wellbeing of those entrusted to them day and night and are ready to come to the rescue in times of challenge. They are your very special health workforce. A force created by nature to make our world a happier and healthier place for all. Please meet… your family DOGtors!
Whether you are a first-time pet owner or have had a pet companion all your life, you’ve likely observed some health benefits of pets. So, let’s paws and take a closer look at some of these benefits.
Pets, humans, and science
Research that examines the benefits of interactions between humans and pets began about 25 years ago. Since then, multiple studies have demonstrated that time spent with pets can enhance our physical and mental health and that adopting a pet of any kind can become one of the best investments in health and wellbeing.
Pets and kids
The Health benefits of pets begin from childhood years. Research has demonstrated children can benefit from interaction with any pet whether it is a dog, cat, rabbit, bird, ferret, lizard, or even a farm animal. Recent research suggests that exposure to pets early in childhood may help prevent allergies, eczema, and asthma later in life. Moreover, pets can help children develop their emotional and social skills and grow up more secure and active. Children also develop a sense of responsibility for others and important life skills such as planning, critical thinking and problem-solving.
Children with ADHD have shown improvements in their attention, social skills, and self-esteem when they have an opportunity to interact with a dog. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, seem to help calm children with autism.
Pets and young adults
Pets, especially dogs, can help young adults with their personal life by helping them find friends. They provide a great opportunity to start a conversation that can lead to a real social connection. Young people who are under the care of their furry companions tend to experience more connection in their personal relationships compared to those who do not have a furry confidant(e). Moreover, young people with pets also often report more connection with the community they live in.
Pets and older adults
Older adults can benefit greatly from interactions with animals as well. Pets help older adults stay physically active longer and maintain better cognitive function. Pet parents over the age of 65 go to the doctor about 30% less than those without pets.
Health benefits for all
Both children and adults benefit greatly when it comes to physical activity. With pets, there are more opportunities to exercise, spend time outside, and socialize. Research shows that dog owners are far more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements and have fewer instances of obesity.
But health benefits do not stop at that. Regular checkups with a pet can improve multiple health indicators. Contact with pets helps to lower blood sugar and blood pressure as well as levels of triglycerides and cholesterol. One study found that stockbrokers with high blood pressure who adopted a pet showed significant improvements in their blood pressure.
Under frequent stress, the body releases stress hormones such as cortisol or norepinephrine which suppress the immune system. This makes people more susceptible to illnesses and diseases. These chemicals have also been linked to a buildup of plaques in the arteries which leads to cardiovascular disease. Stress can also lead to other chronic health problems such as obesity, diabetes, and depression.
However, interaction with animals helps reduce levels of cortisol. This lowers stress, improves cardiovascular health, and helps prevent other chronic conditions. Additionally, interaction with pets may support immunity even more by boosting levels of certain disease-fighting chemicals in the body.
Pets and mental health
Animals can help their human patients with mental health challenges. At a physical level, playing and interacting with pets helps release hormones serotonin and dopamine which have pleasurable, calming, and relaxing effects. When it comes to emotions, animals provide companionship, increase levels of social support and improve mood.
Pet friends also help alleviate loneliness, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. People with mental illness often benefit from living with a pet. For example, watching fish swim helps reduce anxiety and induce calmness. People in prisons show positive long-term changes in behavior after interacting with pets and experiencing mutual affection.
In health and sickness
Pets help individuals through many different types of health challenges. In fact, emotional support animals and therapy pets are becoming increasingly recognized and admired. Various hospitals and nursing homes also have special programs where therapy dogs and other furry therapists provide heartwarming support for patients, family members, and staff.
Studies found that pet owners who suffered a heart attack tend to survive longer than those who do not have a pet. Also, one study found that cat owners had a 40% lower risk of dying from a heart attack or a stroke than non-cat owners. Older individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia experience less agitation and fewer episodes of anxiety when they have a furry doctor at home.
Finally, many individuals with chronic pain report improvement in their levels of pain after interactions with animals. This is because contact with pets helps the body release endorphins which are compounds that act as natural painkillers.
From being fully present at the moment to fulfilling the basic human needs for touch and acceptance to sharing their unconditional love, our special health heroes can benefit almost anyone in a variety of ways.
Anna M. van Heeckeren, “10 Mental & Physical Health Benefits of Having Pets,” One Health, February 23, 2021.
Cedars-Sinai, “The Health Benefits of Pet Ownership,” February 18, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “How to Stay Healthy Around Pets,” September 15, 2021.
Jeanie Lerche Davis, “5 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health,” WebMD, 2004.
Kai Lundgren, Lawrence Robinson, and Robert Segal, “The Health and Mood-Boosting Benefits of Pets,” HelpGuide, July 2021.
News in Health, “The Power of Pets: Health Benefits of Human-Animal Interactions,” February 2018.
UCI Health, “ADHD: Could dogs be the answer?,” February 19, 2019.