Owning a pet can be a wonderfully rewarding experience and one that is actually great for your health. Our furry friends are a great way to make friends, lower blood pressure and improve several other health parameters. So, what are the actual health benefits? Do our hairy, leathery and feathered friends really improve our lives?
Walking and interacting with our pets is a great way to get outdoors for some regular exercise. Dogs in particular are great exercise buddies and will never cancel on you if the weather isn’t perfect. Many dog parks have regular social groups that meet up informally, so pets can be a great way to get out and meet people too. A large Canadian study in people over 65 showed that pet owners were more able to maintain activities of daily living over a one year period, with dogs in particular able to provide routine and a reason to get up in the morning. And let’s face it, your cat is never going to let you sleep in if it is time for breakfast either.
And while the physical benefits of walking the dog are more tangible, did you know that pets are also good for our mental health? Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression and can cope with stress better than those without pets. Pets give companionship and that much-needed physical contact and touch that can be missing in modern society. Stroking the cat and patting the dog has been shown to lower blood pressure, so those evenings on the couch with your furry companion can be very therapeutic. In other studies that have relied on self-reported measures of general mental well-being, pet owners have scored much higher, have a better ability to cope with grief and have less psychiatric problems than non-pet owners. Dogs and cats are also very good listeners should you need to discuss your problems or the woes of the world.
And while the blood pressure lowering effects of pet ownership are well known, there have also been numerous other studies that have looked at the health benefits of pet ownership. In Australia, Germany and China, fewer visits to the doctor were made by pet owners compared to those without pets. Pet owners have increased survival times after a heart attack and there have been studies that show that triglyceride levels and cholesterol levels are lower in pet owners. The most interesting thing is that it is not only long-term pet ownership that has benefit, in many studies the health-improving effects take only a month to appear.
What we often don’t think about with our pets is the way they can bring us together as a community. In a Perth phone survey of 339 residents, pet ownership was associated with increased perception of neighbourhood friendliness. Contact and connection with our local community has incredibly positive effects on physical and mental health. Walking your dog at the local park is a great way to break the ice and talk to people. Get a particularly unusual or attractive dog and you will barely walk 500 metres before someone will stop to talk to you and your dog. This effect, known as social facilitation is particularly great for those that have disabilities or perhaps live alone.
So, it’s confirmed: pets are great for us. Now, what should you do to add a furry friend to your family? The first thing to do is consider costs, pets can in some cases cost a fair bit, with the RSPCA estimating that a pet can cost $1150-$5220 per year. Puppies cost the most with desexing, vaccination, training cost and microchipping adding significantly to that first year’s bills. Cats are a bit cheaper and even cheaper are rescue pets. Our pounds are full of pets that need homes and they are usually screened for behaviour and health problems prior to adoption. Consider also getting pet insurance for a cost of around $200-500 per year, depending on the policy – at least you will be covered should anything big happen to your pet.
One option that many people don’t think about, particularly when finances are tight, is simply fostering animals in their home. There are many wonderful rescue agencies out there that retrieve dogs and cats from their local pound and organise foster care until a permanent home can be found. If you are keen on a specific breed, there are many specific breed rescue groups that also organise foster care for animals that need rehoming. A common concern is that these pets have behaviour problems, but unfortunately most have simply been surrendered due to a change in their owner’s circumstances (moving house, having kids and cost concerns). This can be a great ‘try before you buy’ option if you are considering adopting a pet anyway, but can be excellent if you travel or don’t want to commit to full-time pet ownership. Many will operate as a charity and help out with vet bills and care costs.
Pet ownership is wonderfully rewarding, great for your health and an opportunity to help provide a happy home for an animal that just wants some companionship. There are all sorts of pets out there, with different lifestyle needs, so if you do think pet ownership is for you, do your research and find out what pet would suit you and undoubtedly you will never look back.
This is a bit of a passion of mine at Love That Pet, so don’t hesitate to contact me on the Love That Pet Forums if you need advice.