It’s often said that dog is man’s best friend, but the benefits of owning a dog, or any pet, go beyond companionship. Research shows that pet ownership is highly beneficial to mental health. It may also increase lifespan by reducing the risk of heart disease and strokes.
The benefits of owning a pet is something that has been long felt by animal-lovers. The writer George Eliot famously said ‘Animals are such agreeable friends ―they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms.‘ Now, it is known just how highly valuable pets are to us humans!
Better mental health outcomes
Studies show that animals have significant benefits for our mental health outcomes. One recent study analysed the benefits of pets on the mental health of older adults. The results found that the benefits of having a furry companion included: giving older people purposeful routines and structure, feelings of comfort and safety, social inclusion, and bringing meaning to their lives. Pets also help older people with feelings of depression, loneliness and isolation. John Hopkins reported that 84% people with PTSD who were paired with a service dog saw huge reductions in symptoms. Forty percent of those were even able to reduce their medication!
Pets also have the healing touch when it comes to physical health too. Dog owners can be comforted by the fact that having a canine friend reduces the risk of of death by heart attack and stroke by 31% compared to non-owners! And it’s not just dogs and cats that bring added health benefits. A study of Alzheimer’s patients found that watching fish made them: “more relaxed and alert, and they ate up to 21% more food than they had before the introduction of the fish tanks.”
So what is it about animals that improves our health so significantly?
Animals greatly reduce stress, and this is achieved by the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is a bonding hormone. It is released when we first fall in love, or when parents look into their babies eyes and feel attachment. Unsurprisingly it is known as the ‘love’ chemical. Brian Hare, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University says that both humans and dogs create this chemical when they forge a bond:
“Dogs have somehow hijacked this oxytocin bonding pathway, so that just by making eye contact, or playing and hugging our dog, the oxytocin in both us and our dog goes up. This is why dogs are wonderful in any kind of stressful situation.’’