According to a 2022 survey, 62 percent of households in the UK own a pet, with dogs (34 percent) and cats (28 percent) way ahead of the pack (the next most owned pet is indoor birds, at just 2.9 percent). This figure is even higher in the US where 70 percent of households own a pet, or some 90.5 million families.
Anyway, apologies for the avalanche of stats. It’s all to prove a rather simple point — that a lot of us have pets and that’s largely down to the way they make us feel. The question that proceeds from the good feelings then is: can our tail-wagging pals actually benefit us from a health perspective?
Science does not disappoint. Innumerable studies have explored exactly what we get from our pets, and though in some cases the jury is still out, here are a few chosen ones that might push you into pet parenthood (or make it feel like less of a chore next time you’re cleaning out the litter tray).
This first health perk is an obvious one for anyone who has owned a dog, aka the OG Fitbits — they have you staying active. Dogs like to wander and because they need someone to take them, so will you. In a review from The American Heart Association, owners who walk their dogs exercised for up to 30 minutes more every day than those who don't own a canine.
The health benefits here are all of those we know to be associated with increased regular exercise – the topline bonus being that you live longer.
A 2019 analysis of nearly 4 million people in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom found dog ownership was associated with a 24 percent reduction in dying from any cause over the course of the study, while you were also 31 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
According to a 2022 preliminary study published by the American Academy of Neurology, owning a pet, especially for five years or longer, may be linked to slower cognitive decline in older adults.
It’s a preliminary study, so more work is to be done, but the signs are encouraging. Cognitive data from 1,369 older adults was looked at with an average age of 65 who had normal cognitive skills at the start of the study. Just over half owned pets, and over the six years, this grouping’s cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate.
Increased physical activity has been linked to cognitive health, so this could be an explanation, as could our next benefit – the de-stress factor.
Stress is something that comes for us all at one point or another, but luckily we have pets at hand to help ease the strain. Well, that’s according to a 2019 study from Washington State University, which assessed the interactions of college students who played with cats and dogs for 10 minutes, against a selection of participants who did not.
Several salivary cortisol samples were collected from each participant – cortisol is the major stress hormone in our bodies – with the students given pet facetime showing significantly less cortisol in their saliva after the interaction.
On the flip side, when your pet becomes seriously ill this can have the reverse effect with a 2017 study published by the British Veterinary Association, finding owners of seriously or terminally ill pets to be more likely to suffer with stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety.
One interesting study to end on came out of the University of York which surveyed 6,000 participants looking at the effects of pet ownership during the lockdowns of the Covid pandemic.
More than 90 percent of respondents said their pet helped them cope emotionally with the lockdown and 96 percent said their pet helped keep them fit and active. The paper concluded that pets appeared to act as a buffer against the obvious psychological stresses that came about from the pandemic. Give a hand to our loveable companions.
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