The Health Benefits of Pets

A parent and child with their dog

Our pets are more than family members – they are also health aides, helping to improve and protect both our physical and mental health.

There's a reason pets can become vital to our families. While we care for them, they also take care of us - helping to improve and protect our physical mental health.

Taking your dog for a walk is good exercise for you. So is doing the chores necessary to keep a horse or some pet goats. All that lifting and shoveling helps burn calories and builds muscle mass.  

In addition to the physical workout that pets can provide, being around them every day helps lift our mood and reduces stress. Their companionship and unconditional love gives us support when we need it and chases away symptoms of depression or loneliness.

In this article, we explore the health benefits of pets, plus we provide some questions to consider when deciding which kind of pet to get.

The Calming Effects of Pets

Studies have shown that having one or more pets results in many health benefits, including:

  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol and risk of a heart attack
  • Increased physical activity
  • Improved cognitive function 
  • Reduced depression or loneliness
  • Less anxiety and stress

Here at Blue Cross Vermont, we’re well aware of the health benefits of pet ownership. Many of our employees have pets in their families, and we love sharing pictures of them and telling stories of their antics. We even have a pet of the month contest!

During the pandemic, when we were working remotely, we found that having our pets around during work hours helped produce a calming effect that reduced stress. As we returned to working in the office, we decided to designate one day a week when we can bring our dogs to the office. It has been a howling success.

“Best wellness initiative I have ever participated in,” says Rebecca Copans, our media and government relations liaison. Not only do dog parents like having their fidos laying at their feet, their coworkers enjoy petting the visiting canines. “Those who don't have a dog really benefit from the emotional balm these happy pooches provide,” Rebecca says.

It’s not just us who think that pets are great for health. Studies funded by the National Institutes of Health over the past decade have looked at the physical and mental health benefits of different animals – everything from dogs and cats to fish and guinea pigs. The research has found that being with pets decreases levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Just watching fish swim around their tank produces a feeling of calmness. Reducing cortisol also helps lower blood pressure and protects against a heart attack or stroke.

Emotional Well-being

Many people find that having a pet gives their emotional well-being a boost. In a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association, 86 percent of respondents said their pets have a positive impact on their mental health. Almost 70 percent said pets help reduce their stress and anxiety. 

Pets play a role in helping people better manage their mental health, according to research compiled by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute. 

  • Pet owners with mental health conditions have a stronger sense of identity
  • Routines developed for pet care provide emotional and social support
  • Pets provide distraction and disruption from distressing symptoms, like suicidal thoughts
  • Having pets gives their owners a sense of order and continuity

Pet ownership is especially beneficial for older people, helping them with healthy aging. Having a pet reduces feelings of isolation that elderly people may have and gives them a sense of purpose. The daily activities of pet care also help older people with memory recall and mental cognition. Walking or playing with their pets is an excellent physical activity for older people – provided that the pet’s needs have been well-matched to the older person’s abilities.

Choosing the Right Pet

If you would like to add a pet to your family, here are some things to consider when deciding what kind of pet would be best.

  • What are the costs of caring for the pet, and are they affordable for you?
  • How long will you be away from the pet (for work or travel) and who will take care of the pet when you are away?
  • Will you be able to meet the pet’s needs for feeding, exercise, and other routine care?
  • Are you or someone in your family allergic to the pet?
  • Do you have enough space for the pet, and is it allowed where you live?
  • Is the pet’s energy level, personality, and temperament a good match for your own?

If you are uncertain about the answer to one or more of these questions, you may want to do some further digging before making a choice. 

  • You can talk to a local veterinarian to learn more about what is involved with caring for a pet, including the potential costs. 
  • Ask family members, friends, and neighbors if they’d be willing to help care for the pet when you are away or sick. It’s best to have several people you can turn to, rather than depending on just one.
  • Talk with someone who has a similar pet to find out the details of feeding, exercise, and other routine care.
  • If you don’t know whether you’re allergic to a pet, spend time at the home of someone who has a similar pet to see if you react. You can also have an allergy test done by an allergist.
  • Consult a veterinarian or another pet owner to determine what space would be needed for the pet. If you rent, check your lease or talk with your landlord to make sure the pet is allowed. If the pet is going to be housed outside, you may need to check with your municipality to make sure it is in compliance with local rules.
  • If you are considering adopting a pet, spend time with it beforehand to get a sense of its personality and energy level, and whether that will work in your household. Don’t expect that you can change a pet’s temperament – if it’s not a good fit, let someone else who is a better match give the pet a good home and find another pet that you’re more comfortable with.

We hope that you agree with us that pets can be wonderful for our health, and that you’ll consider adding one to your family. To help with your decision, here are some additional information sources:

CDC Healthy Pets, Healthy People
American Veterinary Medical Association
Best Friends Animal Society