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The Therapeutic & Health Benefits of Pets

How Caring for Animals can Make You Happier and Healthier

Finding A Pet

Professionally trained helper animals—such as guide dogs for the blind—offer obvious benefits to humans. However, the average domestic pet, such as a dog, cat—even a goldfish—can also provide many therapeutic and health benefits. Pets can ease loneliness, reduce stress, promote social interaction, encourage exercise and playfulness, and provide unconditional love and affection. Caring for a pet may even help you live longer.

How pets can improve mood and health

While most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals, many remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that can also accompany the pleasure of playing with or snuggling up to a furry friend. It’s only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond. The American Heart Association has linked the ownership of pets, especially dogs, with a reduced risk for heart disease and greater longevity.

Studies have also found that:

  • Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.
  • People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets.
  • Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
  • Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
  • Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
  • Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
  • While people with dogs often experience the greatest health benefits, a pet doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rate.

One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that most pets fulfill the basic human need to touch. Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with pets, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time. Stroking, holding, cuddling, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe us when we’re stressed. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and some pets are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost mood.

How pets can help you make healthy lifestyle changes

Adopting healthy lifestyle changes can play an important role in easing symptoms of depression, stress, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety. Caring for a pet can help with those healthy lifestyle changes by:

  • Increasing exercise. Exercise doesn’t have to involve boring repetition at a gym. Taking a dog for a walk, riding a horse, or simply chasing a kitten around are fun ways to fit healthy daily exercise into your schedule. Studies have shown that dog owners, for example, are far more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements than non-owners.
  • Providing companionship. Isolation and loneliness can make disorders such as depression even worse. Caring for a living animal can help make you feel needed and wanted, and take the focus away from your problems, especially if you live alone. Most pet owners talk to their pets, some even use them to work through their troubles. And nothing beats loneliness like coming home to a wagging tail or purring cat.
  • Helping meet new people. Pets can be a great social lubricant for their owners. Dog owners frequently stop and talk to each other on walks or in a dog park. Pet owners also meet new people in pet stores, clubs, and training classes.
  • Reducing anxiety. The companionship of an animal such as a dog can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world.
  • Adding structure and routine to your day. Many pets, especially dogs, require a regular feeding and exercise schedule. No matter your mood—depressed, anxious, or stressed—you’ll always have to get out of bed to feed, exercise, and care for your pet.
  • Providing sensory stress relief. Touch and movement are two healthy ways to quickly manage stress. This could involve petting a cat, taking a dog for a walk, or riding a horse.

Pets and the health benefits for older adults

The key to aging well is to effectively handle life’s major changes, such as retirement, the loss of loved ones, and the physical changes of aging. Pets can play an important role in healthy aging by:

  • Helping you find meaning and joy in life. As you age, you’ll lose things that previously occupied your time and gave your life purpose. You may retire from your career or your children may move far away. Caring for a pet can bring pleasure and help boost your morale and optimism. Taking care of an animal can also provide a sense of self-worth. Choosing to adopt an animal from a shelter, especially an older dog or cat, can add to the sense of fulfillment, knowing that you’ve provided a home to a pet that may otherwise have been euthanized.
  • Staying connected. Maintaining a social network isn’t always easy as you grow older. Retirement, illness, death, and moves can take away close friends and family members. And making new friends can get harder. Dogs especially are a great way for seniors to spark up conversations and meet new people.
  • Boosting vitality. You can overcome many of the physical challenges associated with aging by taking good care of yourself. Pets encourage playfulness, laughter, and exercise, which can help boost your immune system and increase your energy.

Even if you’re not able to handle the demands of owning a pet, you can still ask to walk a neighbor’s dog, for example, or volunteer at an animal shelter. For a list of organizations that can help older adults adopt an animal and pay for their pet’s medical care, see Resources section below.

Pets and adults with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia

As part of the disease, Alzheimer’s patients may exhibit a wide variety of behavioral problems, many related to an inability to deal with stress.

  • Research at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine concluded that Alzheimer's patients suffer less stress and have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a pet in the home.
  • Pets can provide a source of positive, nonverbal communication. The playful interaction and gentle touch from a well-trained, docile animal can help soothe an Alzheimer’s patient and decrease aggressive behavior.
  • In many cases a patient’s problem behavior is a reaction to the stressed response of the primary caretaker. Pets can help ease the stress of caregivers. Cats or caged animals may be more suitable than dogs, which generally require more care and can add to the burden of someone who’s already looking after an Alzheimer’s patient.

Pets and the health benefits for children

Not only do children who grow up with pets have less risk of allergies and asthma, many also learn responsibility, compassion, and empathy from having pets. Unlike parents, pets are never critical and don’t give orders. They are always loving and their mere presence at home can help provide a sense of security in children. Having an ever-present dog or cat, for example, can help ease separation anxiety in children when mom and dad aren’t around. Studies have also shown that pets can help calm hyperactive or overly aggressive kids. Of course, both the pet and the child need to be trained to behave appropriately with each other.

Children and adults alike can benefit from playing with pets, which can be both a source of calmness and relaxation, as well as a source of stimulation for the brain and body. Playing with a pet can even be a doorway to learning for a child. It can stimulate a child’s imagination and curiosity. The rewards of training a dog to perform a new trick, for example, can teach kids the importance of perseverance. Caring for a furry friend can also offer another benefit to a child: immense joy.

Children with learning and other disorders

Some children with autism or other learning difficulties are better able to interact with pets than people. Autistic children often rely on nonverbal cues to communicate, just as pets do. And learning to first connect with a cat or dog, for example, may even help an autistic child in their interactions with people.

  • Pets can help children with learning disabilities learn how to regulate stress and calm themselves, making them better equipped to overcome the challenges of their disorder.
  • Playing and exercising with a pet can help a child with learning disorders stay alert and attentive throughout the day. It can also be a great antidote to stress and frustration caused by the learning disability.
  • Learning to ride a horse can help elevate the self-esteem of disabled children, putting them on a more equal level with kids without disabilities.

Finding a pet that meets your needs and lifestyle

While people who have pets tend to be happier, more independent, and feel more secure than those without pets, it’s important to select the type of pet that is best for you. You’ll benefit most from having a pet whose needs are compatible with your lifestyle and physical capabilities.

Lifestyle considerations that influence your choice in a pet

  • Little outdoor activity – If most of your time is spent at home, consider pets that would be happy to stay with you in that environment. You may enjoy playing with or cuddling a cat or a bunny; taking leisurely walks with an older dog; watching fish or reptiles; or talking or singing along with a bird.
  • High activity level – If you’re more active and enjoy daily activities outside of your home, especially walking or running, an energetic dog might be right for you. Canine companions thrive on outdoor exercise, keeping you on the move.
  • Small children and the elderly – Families with small children or elderly living in their homes should consider the size and energy level of a pet. Puppies and kittens are usually very active, but delicate creatures that must be handled with care. Large or rambunctious dogs could accidentally harm or knock over a small child or adult who is unsteady on his or her feet.
  • Other animals in household – Consider the ongoing happiness and ability to adjust of the pets you already have. While your cat or a dog might love to have an animal friend to play with, a pet that has had exclusive access to your attentions may resent sharing you.
  • Home environment – If a neat, tidy home, free of animal hair, occasional muddy footprints and “accidents” is important, then a free-roaming dog or long-haired cat may not be the best choice. You may want to choose pets that are confined to their quarters, such as fish, birds, hamsters, or reptiles.
  • Landscaping concerns – With certain pets, your landscaping will suffer. Many dogs will be tempted to dig holes in your lawn, and dog urine can leave yellow patches—some say unaltered females cause the most damage.
  • Time commitment – Finally, and perhaps most importantly, keep in mind that you’ll be making a commitment that will last the lifetime of the pet—perhaps 10, 15, or 20 years with a dog or cat; as many as 30 years or more with a bird. You can, of course, consider adopting an older dog or cat from a shelter or rescue group and provide a deserving animal with a loving home for its senior years.

Choosing between a dog or a cat

Dogs and cats are the most common household pets. While on occasion, you’ll see someone walking a cat on a leash or a dog that uses a litter box, typically the needs and natural behaviors of dogs and cats are different:

Typical Distinctions Between Dogs and Cats
Characteristic Cats Dogs

Indoors or Outdoors

Housecats do enjoy being outdoors sometimes, but can wander off.

Dogs need routine exercise and walks outdoors during the day (even if you have a large, fenced backyard where they can run and go to the bathroom, they will still need a daily walk).

Training

Essential training of cats usually includes using the litter box and not clawing furniture. Cats resist training.

Dogs need much more training than cats. Most dogs enjoy training, because it gives them something to do. They also have an innate desire to please their people.

Personality

If you love serenity and independence mixed with playfulness, a cat is more likely to satisfy you.

If you want to be greeted exuberantly every time you come home, a dog is a better choice.

Sociability

Cats are often content to be left alone (except, of course, when you'd rather they leave you alone).

Dogs thrive on interaction with humans and other dogs.

Typical Distinctions Between Dogs and Cats
Indoors or Outdoors

CATS: Housecats do enjoy being outdoors sometimes, but can wander off.

DOGS: Dogs need routine exercise and walks outdoors during the day (even if you have a large, fenced backyard where they can run and go to the bathroom, they will still need a daily walk)

Training

CATS: Essential training of cats usually includes using the litter box and not clawing furniture. Cats resist training.

DOGS: Dogs need much more training than cats. Most dogs enjoy training, because it gives them something to do. They also have an innate desire to please their people.

Personality

CATS: If you love serenity and independence mixed with playfulness, a cat is more likely to satisfy you.

DOGS: If you want to be greeted exuberantly every time you come home, a dog is a better choice.

Sociability

CATS: Cats are often content to be left alone (except, of course, when you'd rather they leave you alone).

DOGS: Dogs thrive on interaction with humans and other dogs.

Choosing the Right DogChoosing the Right Dog

How to find the perfect canine friend

To learn more, read article

Choosing a CatChoosing the Right Cat

How to find the perfect feline friend

To learn more, read article

Owning a pet is not for everyone

Having a pet is not a miracle cure for mental illness. Owning a pet is beneficial and comforting only for those who love and appreciate domestic animals. If you’re simply not a “pet person,” pet ownership is not going to provide you with any therapeutic benefits or improve your life. For other people, owning a pet may simply not be practical. Some of the drawbacks are:

  • Pets cost money. Food bills, veterinary care, licenses, grooming costs, toys, bedding, boarding fees, and other maintenance expenses can mount up. If you’re unemployed or elderly, on a limited fixed income, it may be a struggle to cope with the expense of pet ownership.
  • Pets require time and attention. As any dog owner will tell you, there’s nothing therapeutic about coming home to a dog that has been locked up in the house on his own all day long. Dogs need daily exercise to stay calm and well-balanced; most other pets require at least daily care and attention. Pets can even curb some social activity, as they can only be left alone for a limited time.
  • Pets can be destructive. Any pet can have an occasional accident at home. Some cats may be prone to shredding upholstery, some dogs to chewing shoes. While training can help eradicate negative, destructive behavior, they remain common in animals left alone without exercise or stimulation for long periods of time.
  • Pets require responsibility. Most dogs, regardless of size and breed, are capable of inflicting injury on people if not handled responsibly by their owners. Even cats can scratch or bite. Pet owners need to be alert to any danger, especially around children.
  • Pets carry health risks for some people. While there are some diseases that can be transmitted from cats and dogs to their human handlers, allergies are the most common health risk of pet ownership. If you or a family member has been diagnosed with a pet allergy, carefully consider whether you can live with the symptoms before committing to pet ownership. Also consider that some friends or relatives with allergies may no longer be able to visit your home if you have a pet.

Reducing health risks from a pet

Kids, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk for getting sick from animals. Take these steps to reduce your risk:

  • Wash hands thoroughly after contact with animals.
  • Keep your pet clean and healthy, and keep vaccinations up to date.
  • Supervise children under age 5 while they’re interacting with animals.
  • Prevent kids from kissing their pets or putting their hands or other objects in their mouths after touching animals.
  • Avoid changing litter boxes during pregnancy. Problem pregnancies may arise from toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease spread by exposure to cat feces.

Source: NIH News in Health

Alternatives to pet ownership

If full-time pet ownership is not right for you—or if you want to give pet ownership a trial run before making a commitment—some animal shelters and rescue groups offer pet “rental” programs. Dogs or cats that are available for adoption can be rented out for walks or play dates, or you can foster an animal temporarily until a permanent home can be found. Most animal shelters or rescue groups welcome volunteers to help care for homeless pets or assist at adoption events. Even short periods spent with a pet can benefit both you and the animal.

In some areas, education grants are available to purchase and care for class pets, so teachers and groups of school children can experience the benefits of caring for an animal while sharing the responsibilities. See the Resources section below for more information.

Animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities

Animal-assisted therapy involves the use of volunteers’ animals such as horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, and fish to interact with patients suffering from disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and a host of developmental disabilities. The animals have been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety.

Pets can also be used for animal-assisted activities. A variety of different organizations offer specially trained animals to visit people in children’s hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing homes, hospice programs, shelters, and schools. During these visits, people are invited to pet and stroke the animals. Some might groom a dog, hold a rabbit in their lap, or have a cat sit on their bed, for example. Some dogs perform tricks or obedience routines to entertain patients and help take their minds off their problems.

To arrange for pets to visit your facility or to volunteer your pet for animal-assisted therapy or animal-assisted activities, see Finding Therapy Pets in Resources and References section below.

Related Articles

Healthy Aging Tips

Staying Healthy Over 50 – Healthy aging is about much more than staying physically healthy—it’s about maintaining your sense of purpose and your zest for life.

Play, Creativity and Lifelong Learning

Why Play Matters for Adults – Play matters for both work and relationships. It helps us be more inventive, smart, happy, flexible, and resilient.

Benefits of Exercise

Easy Exercise Tips – Exercise is just as good for the mind as it is for the body. Even a little regular exercise can boost your energy and mood and relieve stress, anxiety, and depression.

Dealing with Depression

Dealing with Depression – You can’t beat depression with sheer willpower, but you can make a huge dent with simple lifestyle changes and other coping tips.

Pet Ownership

Choosing the Right Dog

Choosing the Right Dog – To make sure you find the perfect canine friend, it's important to choose a dog that best fits with your lifestyle.

Choosing the Right Cat

Choosing the Right Cat – Learn about the different types of cats and discover which will be your perfect pet.

Understanding Depression

Coping with Pet Loss – It’s natural to feel grief and sadness when a beloved pet dies. The key to coping is to accept your feelings and embrace the emotions you feel.

Resources & References

The therapeutic and health benefits of pets

Physical & Medical Health Benefits of Pets – Describes all the wonderful ways pets can help us live healthier, happier lives. (PetEducation.com; commercial site)

Companion Animals in Care Environments – Series of articles about animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy. (University of Minnesota)

The Health Benefits of Pets – Summarizes the results of numerous studies into the therapeutic benefits of pets. (PreciousPets.org)

Can Pets Keep You Healthy? – Explores the bond between human and animal. (National Institutes of Health)

Pets and older adults

Seniors for Seniors Adoptions – The program places senior cats and dogs with senior citizens at a reduced adoption rate. (Paws.org)

Pets for the Elderly – A non-profit charity that pays a portion of the adoption fee when a senior adopts a companion pet from one of their participating shelters. (The Pets for the Elderly Foundation)

Seniors for Pets – Provides assistance to needy seniors by funding basic medical care for their pets. (Seniors for Pets)

Pets and children

Kids and Pets – Tips for parents about ensuring a safe and loving relationship between children and pets, including how to introduce a new pet to a baby. (HomeVet.com, a Connecticut veterinarian’s website)

Dogs and Children – Article about kids and dogs living under the same roof. Includes some tips for training the dog and the child. (Chesapeake Bay Retriever Relief and Rescue)

Exploring the Health Benefits of Pets – How companion animals can help children with autism. (New York Times)

Choosing the right pet

Selecting the Right Pet for Your Family – Points to consider before adopting a pet, and what factors to consider in choosing what type of pet to get. (Lexington Humane Society)

Finding therapy pets and class pets

Therapy Dogs – Organization that provides dog/handler teams in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and U.S. Territories. (TherapyDogs.com)

Delta Society Pet Partners – Provides therapy, service, and companion animals in the United States. (Delta Society)

Therapy Dogs International – Regulates, tests, and registers therapy dogs and their handlers in the United States and Canada. (TDI)

Pets in the Classroom – Program that provides grants to pre-K to 8th grade teachers to purchase and care for class pets. (Pets in the Classroom)

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: February 2014.

©Helpguide.org. All rights reserved. This reprint is for information only and NOT a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Helpguide.org is an ad-free non-profit resource for supporting better mental health and lifestyle choices for adults and children.

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