With an estimated 33 million pets, Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world.
Dogs are the most common pet, with 39% of households owning a dog, followed by cats at 29%.
In addition to the companionship and enjoyment that come with sharing your life with a furry friend, studies have shown that pets can also offer both physical and mental health benefits to their owners.
The Benefits of Pet Ownership
Simply walking your dog and engaging in outdoor activities with your pets is a good way to naturally boost your energy, increase your fitness levels and help reduce heart disease, cholesterol and blood pressure. In fact, owning a pet may have a number of physical health benefits, such as:
- Dogs and cats prevent allergies – Allergies occur when the immune system responds aggressively to a harmless environmental substance (allergen) such as dust, pollen or pet dander, by producing antibodies that “attack” the allergen. The immune system normally functions to protect the body against viruses, bacteria and other pathogens by destroying these allergens upon recognition. When an allergic reaction occurs, the immune system mistakes these harmless substances as potential pathogens and attacks them. Studies comparing infants who live in homes with and without pets have found that exposure to larger amounts of allergens early in life, may protect against allergies. Thus, infants that live in a home with a dog or cat are less likely to develop pet allergies.
- Pets are beneficial for your baby’s immune system – A study in Finland examined the frequency of infant’s respiratory symptoms and infections, and their contact with cats and dogs in their first year of life. The research found that infants who grew up in homes with pets were 44% less likely to develop an ear infection, and 29% less likely to receive antibiotics, compared with pet-free infants.
- Reduce the risk of asthma in children – Early and regular contact with pets leads to a stronger immune system that can help children avoid a number of respiratory problems including asthma. A study on mice that were exposed to dogs, revealed different gut microbes and that they reacted less strongly to allergens. Researchers discovered that asthma-associated inflammatory responses in the lungs were greatly reduced in mice previously exposed to dog-associated dust, compared to mice exposed to dust from pet-free homes or mice not exposed to any dust.
- Cancer detection – Tumours typically produce an odour that some dogs are able to smell. Dogs can to be trained specifically to detect the odour of cancerous tumours.
- Help for the disabled – Guide dogs have been helping the blind since 1931. More recently, dogs have been trained to provide assistance to people who have hearing difficulties, mobility problems and epilepsy. Some European countries such as Spain and Italy have even trained dogs to jump out of helicopters and speeding boats to save people from drowning.
- Pets can alert people to danger – News programs often report stories about pets who have alerted their owner to dangers such as fire or snakes. Dogs are now being trained to alert diabetics to a sudden drop in blood glucose levels. Dogs have also been trained to alert people when children are having a seizure, and to lie next to the child to prevent them from hurting themselves in the process.
- Dogs can prevent minor physical ailments – One study, which examined changes in health following the adoption of a dog from an animal shelter, showed that people who adopted a pet had a significant reduction in the frequency of minor illnesses such as headaches, colds, hay fever and dizziness.
On top of the numerous physical health benefits that pets can provide, research has also found a number of mental health benefits:
- Pets reduce stress and depression – Research shows that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. Petting a cat, taking a dog for a walk, or riding a horse can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which improve your mood and help reduce stress.
- Reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem – Pets can offer comfort, help ease anxiety and build self-confidence for people anxious about going out into the world. Dogs (and other pets) offer greeting rituals, affectionate nature, loyalty and unconditional love, that can promote feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.
- Reduce isolation and loneliness – Pets can provide their owners with comfort from loneliness and social rejection. Caring for a pet can help make you feel wanted and needed and take the focus away from your problems. Some pet owners even work through their troubles by talking to their pet. Pets can also help you to connect with other people. For example, walking your dog attracts a higher number of chance conversations with complete strangers, than walking alone.
- Support children with learning and other disorders – Autistic children often rely on non-verbal cues to communicate, just like pets do. Learning to connect with a pet first can help some children with autism in their interactions with people. Pets can help children with learning disabilities learn how to deal with stress and frustration. Further, learning to ride a horse can help increase self-esteem and improve their ability to socially interact with peers.
- Pets help the elderly – Pets can provide companionship, happiness and decrease loneliness in older people. Studies in nursing homes found that the presence of a resident dog resulted in happier, more alert residents. Animal-assisted therapy was also found to facilitate social interactions between residents.
- Benefits for children – Playing with pets creates stimulation for the brain and body and can help stimulate a child’s imagination and curiosity. Looking after and training a pet teaches children responsibility and perseverance. Pets can also serve to ease separation anxiety when a child’s parents are not around.
These benefits are just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the potential health benefits our furry friends can provide us.
If you are not already sharing your life with a beloved pet and are thinking about adopting one, it is important to weigh up all the pros and cons. Caring for a pet takes a considerable amount of time and energy every day. Exercise, feeding, training, grooming and playtime are all important aspects of owning a pet.
Remember, pets are a life-long commitment, but given the chance, they will provide you with unconditional love and may even help to improve your physical and mental health.
If you would like to learn more about the health benefits of pet ownership or how our services can help you improve your physical and mental health, please call M1 Psychology or book an initial appointment online.
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