Few things can elicit admiration-filled “aws” and make our voices soar five octaves higher quite like pets can. Our fluffy (or bald) companions, including man’s best friend and our cat masters, undoubtedly reduce stress and help release “happy” hormones. But, how else do they affect our bodies? Studies have proven the advantages to our health that are associated with interacting with animals for those of all ages, socially, mentally, and molecularly. Most notably, pets can play vital roles in improving mental health and physical health, child development, and the well-being of older persons.
As college students, most of us are well-versed in the language of stress and burnout. The general consensus on the importance of mental health on holistic health is growing by the day, and pets are a major source of healthy hormones for the mind. A 2012 study showed that animals reduce anxiety, depression, and loneliness, as well as high blood pressure . Serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin, a trio known as the happy hormones, are elevated because of human-pet interaction. Pet therapy is a great reflection of this phenomenon; animals “provide a non-judgmental form of interaction that can motivate and encourage people… Veterans with PTSD have also found therapy pets helpful” . Pets can be a source of unconditional love, but many times, people cannot afford them, have no time to care for them, or feel undeserving. Rest assured, however, pets will always be a source of happiness, whether in passing or not.
Meeting social, emotional, and educational needs are imperative standards for healthy child development. Along with several contributing factors such as adequate sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet, most children receive their social and emotional needs from family and friends . Children in households with a pet, however, can derive some of these necessities from their animals as well. Studies have shown that “children’s relationships with familiar animals, especially pets, are unique and different from their relationships with others in their social world,” and “exposure to pets should facilitate the establishment and maintenance of relationships with peers” . In a se BN parate study, researchers found that teenagers who cared for a fish were “more disciplined about checking their own blood glucose levels” than those who didn’t care for a fish , suggesting ownership in any form helps to foster valuable qualities for one’s entire life. Moreover, owning pets can also facilitate frequent exercise such as walking, playing, and running, which in turn can improve all areas of life and support developmental well-being.
People age, but the need for social interaction and affection doesn’t change. For the elderly, “aging is generally associated with an increase in dependency, multimorbidity, and social isolation,” and many times, human socialization is less than what it is in their earlier years (Patto, 2020). Pet ownership, although not a replacement for human interaction, may promote healthy upkeep, such as physical activity, crucial for the physical well-being of people and especially for the elderly. Ruzić et al.  “evaluated elderly patients during the first year after myocardial infarction: the group that performed a regular dog walking three times daily had better cardiac performance after 1 year than the group of non-dog owners . Moreover, pet ownership provides a sense of companionship, which may be more important for those dealing with the common tragedies including grief and loneliness. At old age, physical diminishes are bound to occur, such as the stiffening of the blood vessels (as implied before), weakening of bones, and diminished eyesight and hearing . Having a pet (or even better, a guide animal) can directly improve these declines.
Despite the given responsibilities associated with pet ownership, there are numerous reasons to advocate for frequent human-pet interaction in all stages of life, including the social, neurological, and physical benefits. So, the next time a good boy/girl comes around, be sure to get your pets in for that extra dose of happiness!
Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 234. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 23). Child development basics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/childdevelopment/facts.html
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, July 26). The power of pets. National Institutes of Health. From https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2018/02/power-pets
Technology Assessment Workshop on the Health Benefits of Pets. (1988). Health benefits of pets: summary of working group: NIH Technology Assessment Workshop, September 10- 11, 1987. [Bethesda, Md.?]: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007398217
Ruzić A, Miletić B, Ruzić T, Persić V, Laskarin G (2011) Regular dog-walking improves physical capacity in elderly patients after myocardial infarction. Coll Antropol 35(Suppl 2):73–75
SpringerLink. (2020). Pets as Sentinels, Forecasters and Promoters of Human Health. (M. R. Pastorinho & A. C. A. Sousa, Eds.) (1st ed. 2020.). Cham: Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from https://resolver.ebscohost.com/Redirect/PRL?EPPackageLocationID=1504.23436907.55178115&epcustomerid=s9001366
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020, November 19). Aging: What to expect. Mayo Clinic. Web.