Pets: Helping Us Stay Healthy

Taking care of animals is what I love to do so, as a vet, my primary concern is animals’ health. But that’s not to say I don’t care about people’s health, too – of course I do! And, in fact, the two may be more closely linked that we realise. While my vet’s hat remains firmly on, for the sake of this blog I’m going to take a brief dalliance into ‘doctor-land’ and talk about human health for a change, instead of that of our furry friends.

I’m not for a second suggesting I’m a fully-fledged doctor, so I won’t be offering 2-4-1 appointments for pets and their owners any time soon, but I have been doing a little digging to explore the positive effect that having a pet can have on our health. It’s something I’ve definitely seen first-hand evidence of on numerous occasions throughout my years in practice.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – having a pet is a big commitment and it’s certainly not a decision that should be taken lightly. You do have to be prepared to give a lot in terms of time, money and commitment to caring for your pet. But, boy, they certainly do give a lot in return! There’s a large body of evidence out there to support the idea that pets, especially dogs and cats, have a hugely positive impact on the health of their owners, both physically and mentally.

Having a furry friend around the house can make you feel happier. A pet is a companion, and it’s well-known that they can ease feelings of loneliness. They may not always answer, but pets are really great listeners and whether you’re chatting to them about your problems or just giving them a running commentary on what you’re up to that day (I often run my itinerary past my three!), they’re great company. The fact that they don’t reply also makes them much harder to fall out with – there are no arguments when you’re chatting to your pet! They might cock their head and give you a slightly quizzical look from time to time, but as backchat goes that’s pretty easy to deal with! They’re non-judgemental, they don’t criticise, and they offer unconditional love. This non-verbal support and companionship from your pet can really help if you’re feeling anxious, misunderstood, lonely or struggling with mental health. Curling up for a cuddle with your puss or pooch can instantly provide some relief from the stresses and strains of life. They give affection freely and are there for us, no matter what. They often sense unease and will know exactly when they’re needed with a dose of special pet-style TLC.

Having a pet can also provide a sense of purpose and structure to your day which can be especially important for older adults or those struggling to cope with big changes to their lives such as bereavement, divorce, retirement or ‘empty nest syndrome’. They can offer a sense of ‘community’ and belonging. Being a pet owner gives you membership of an exclusive ‘club’ and it’s a great conversation starter when meeting new people. Animal lovers are usually more than happy to chat about their pets or yours!

If you’re a dog owner, those regular dog walks can really help with your physical health, too. Without a dog, getting outside in all weathers for an early morning wander or a stroll after work doesn’t always sound particularly tempting. But, if you’ve got your faithful friend to walk? Well you’ve got no choice! Regular walks really are a great form of exercise and you’ve also got the added bonus of fresh air and vitamin D. It certainly beats a session at the gym in my opinion. A combination of the increase in daily exercise and the lowered stress levels means that people with pets often have lower blood pressure, too.

And those factors can also lead to a better night’s sleep … which again, in turn, contributes to overall health. Sleep is one of the key components in keeping your body healthy: it’s essential for every single process in the body and helps you to function both physically and mentally. I know I always sleep better after a good hike in the great outdoors with Poppy and Betty and some playtime with the pooches always clears my head after a busy day at work, too.

So, dogs and cats can help to reduce stress and anxiety, combat depression, lower blood pressure, improve fitness, provide companionship, give purpose and structure and also help us to catch some rejuvenating Zzz’s at the end of the day. Anything else…?

Well, yes – it seems that pets can help to give our immune systems a boost, too. In recent years especially, additional cleaning and antibacterial products have meant that we’re living in hyper-clean environments which doesn’t give our bodies much opportunity to build up immunity against even harmless bacteria. Having a pet around gives our bodies more regular contact with a range of germs which won’t hurt us but will give our immune systems the chance to do what they do best and build up some antibodies. Having pets won’t make us ill, but it does allow our bodies to be more prepared for the times when something more harmful comes our way! One study of children found that petting a dog for just 18 minutes raised the level of an antibody called immunoglobulin A in their saliva. So it doesn’t take long for pets to start working their health-boosting magic!

There’s more science to support the pets and health hypothesis too – for those of you who like the tangible evidence, scientists at Washington State University studied how stroking dogs and cats affected students who were under pressure from their studies and exams. They found that even 10 minutes of interaction with the animals had an impact, concluding that: “Students in our study that interacted with cats and dogs had a significant reduction in cortisol, a major stress hormone.” Interacting with animals has also been shown to cause release of oxytocin, known as the ‘feel-good hormone.’

So, there you have it, there’s no arguing with the evidence: pets are good for you! Of course, there are also the amazing medical dogs who directly look after their owners’ health and can literally save lives on a daily basis. And, there are the many documented cases of pets who’ve alerted their owners to an unknown and previously undiagnosed condition through their highly sensitive sense of smell.

I’ll never tire of saying it: pets are amazing. So, I’ll continue to do all I can to take care of their health, while they help to take care of yours. Until next time – stay healthy!