Animals can make people feel good. And your favorite ones can also help you stay well. You may be surprised at just how many ways a pet can improve your health.
It only takes a few minutes with a dog to feel calmer and less stressed. Your body actually goes through physical changes in that time that make a difference in your mood. The level of cortisol, a stress hormone, lowers. And serotonin, a feel-good chemical your body makes, rises.
Better Blood Pressure
You still have to watch your weight and exercise. But having a pet can help you manage your blood pressure. In one study of married couples, pet owners had lower blood pressure and lower heart rates during rest than people who didn’t have a pet. Another study showed that when children with high blood pressure petted their dog, their numbers improved.
Watch what you eat and work out. If you also have a pet, there could be a cholesterol perk. People who have dogs tend to have better levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, compared to people who don’t. The reason for that isn’t clear. Part of it could be the more active lifestyle that comes with having a dog.
No one loves you more unconditionally than your pet. It could even help you deal with and recover from depression. Your pet will listen to you talk for as long as you want to talk. You’ll probably feel calmer when you pet your dog. And when you take care of an animal — walk with it, groom it, play with it — takes you out of yourself and helps you feel better about the way you spend your time.
Boost Your Fitness
If you have a dog, you’re probably more active than someone who doesn’t have one. A daily 30-minute walk with your pooch helps keep you moving. Two 15-minute walks, one in the morning and one in the evening, do the same thing. Add in a game of fetch in the back yard with your dog and you’ll be even more fit.
A Faithful Exercise Buddy
When you work out with your pet, you’ll both benefit. Shine a flashlight on the wall or wave a string while you do a step aerobics routine. You might even find yoga classes for people and their dogs, called doga. Call your local gym or ask your vet about it.
One key to a healthy mind is to stay engaged with others. And pet owners tend to want to talk with other pet owners. A dog is a conversation waiting to happen. People, especially those with dogs, will stop and talk with you when they see you walking your pet.
Fewer Allergies, Stronger Immunity
When children grow up in a home with a dog they are less likely to develop allergies. The same is true for kids who live on a farm with large animals. Higher levels of certain immune system chemicals show a stronger immune system, which will help keep them healthy as they get older.
For people with diabetes, a sudden drop in the level of blood glucose can be very serious. Some dogs can alert their owner before it actually happens. They may sense chemical changes in the body that give off a scent. The alarm gives the owner time to eat a snack to avoid the emergency. About one in three dogs living with people with diabetes have this ability.
Partners in Better Cancer Care
Dogs get the same kinds of cancers humans do. For example, studies of prostate cancer in dogs have led to a better understanding of how it develops in older men. And preventing cancer in pets may lead to new strategies for people, too.
Overcoming the Limitations of ADHD
When a child with ADHD works with and keeps a pet, there can be benefits. It gives them practice with chores, planning, and responsibility. Dogs need to play, and that helps kids burn off extra energy. In turn, that can mean an easier time falling asleep at night. And because the bond between a dog and a child is unconditional love, Dogs help children with ADHD learn about self-esteem.
Autism: Addressing the Senses
Sensory issues are common among children with Autism Sensory Disorder. Sensory integration activities help them get used to the way something feels against their skin, and to certain smells or sounds. Dogs and horses have both sometimes been used in these activities. The children usually find it calming to work with animals. And animals can hold their attention.
Walking your dog counts as a weight-bearing exercise that strengthens your bones and the muscles around them. It also lets you spend time in the sun, which provides vitamin D. If you have osteoporosis, use a short leash that won’t get tangled. And don’t walk a dog that is liable to jump on you and make you lose your balance.
Manage Arthritis Together
Do you and your dog have arthritis? When you make an appointment at the vet, also call and make your own doctor’s appointment. You both need exercise, so walk with your dog. Keep your medicine in the same place you keep the dog’s, so you’ll see it when you get his. If you can, coordinate taking your medicines at the same time you give him his medicine.
Specially trained dogs can do tasks that let people with Parkinson’s disease keep their independence. They can pick up dropped items or fetch ones you ask for. They can provide balance support, open and close doors, and turn lights on with their paws. They can also sense when someone with Parkinson’s “freezes” and touch the foot to let the person keep walking. Groups like Pet Partners can help you find a good service dog.
A Better Quality of Life
Visits from therapy dogs help people recovering from devastating illness or an event such as a stroke. Some dogs are trained to understand a range of commands which lets them help those with aphasia (a language disorder common in older adults, particularly those who’ve had a stroke) feel good when they see the dog understands them. And, petting or scratching a dog can help someone rebuild strength while recovering from a stroke or other illness. It also creates a feeling of calm.
A Calming Presence
People with AIDS are less likely to be depressed if they own a pet, especially if they’re strongly attached. And with an animal in the home, people with Alzheimer’s have fewer anxious outbursts. The animal also helps the caregivers feel less burdened. Cats seem to be particularly helpful since they need less care than dogs.
Researchers are studying what happens when they bring specially trained animals into clinical settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes. One of the biggest advantages of letting people spend time with animals in such places seems to be improved mood and less anxiety.