Five health benefits of pets

Sixty-seven percent of households in the U.S. own a pet. Pets provide companionship, amusement, and enjoyment -- and they can also offer myriad health benefits. Here are five ways pets can be good for your health.

1) They help you get more exercise.

If you’re a dog owner, there’s good news for you! Research has shown that dog owners get 22 more minutes of exercise a day than non-dog owners. Because dogs motivate you to get out of bed in the morning and go for routine walks during the day, people who own dogs are 34% more likely to get the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week than people who don’t own a dog. And when it comes to how people use their leisure time, dog owners spend 69% more of their leisure time engaging in physical activity than their counterparts.

2) They have a positive mental health effect.

Pet therapy has been shown to provide multiple mental health benefits. Pets’ lower rates of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Pet therapy also decreases stress levels in people who work high-stress jobs that expose them to traumatic situations, including emergency medical professionals, firefighters, police officers, emergency dispatchers, and military personnel.

In addition to self-reported improvement of symptoms like loneliness or depression, studies have shown that pet therapy has objective benefits, including lower heart rate, lower respiratory rate, and lower levels of stress hormones.

While most people think of dogs when they think of animal-assisted therapy, other animals can offer similar benefits. For example, people who visit aquariums experience a drop in their blood pressure, respiratory rate, and heart rate, as well as a self-reported improvement in their mood.

3) They reduce childhood allergies and asthma.

A study performed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that infants who lived in a home with a dog or cat in their first year of life were less likely to develop allergies by the time they were 7-9 years of age, and less likely to have asthma when they were 12-13 years old.

Researchers attribute this effect to early sensitization of the child’s immune system, so the immune system is more likely to recognize allergens like pet dander as familiar rather than foreign.

4) They improve survival after a major cardiovascular event.

As mentioned above, owning a dog tends to increase physical activity, which has been shown to decrease rates of cardiovascular events like heart attacks and strokes.

In addition, owning a dog can improve survival rates after a patient is discharged from the hospital following a major cardiovascular event. The effect was strongest in people who lived alone.

Dog ownership was shown to reduce the risk of death in the 12-month period following a heart attack by 33% in patients who lived alone. Dog ownership also lowered the risk of a recurrent heart attack.

In stroke patients who lived alone, dog ownership improved their chance of survival in the year following their stroke by 27%.

5) They extend life expectancy.

 All the benefits pets offer -- including increased exercise, improved mood, lower stress levels, improved survival after a cardiovascular event, and lower blood pressure -- combine to have a positive impact on life expectancy.

A study of more than 3 million people that examined data from 1950-2019 found that dog ownership was associated with a 24% decreased risk of death from all causes. The benefit was even greater for people with cardiovascular disease, and people who lived alone.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant