Furry Children Help Us Live Longer, Happier Lives

Photo Credit: Gala Martinez/Addictive Creative/Shutterstock

Even though I didn’t have any pets (other than goldfish) growing up, I’ve always been a dog person. I loved to sleep over at friends’ houses that had dogs. In fact, I would usually be found the next morning sleeping with the family’s pup. I loved how dogs made me feel calm and happy, and I could not wait to grow up so I could have some of my own. I’ve had dogs in my life ever since graduating from college in 1988; my first dog’s name was Cin Cin.

Whenever I'm feeling down or anxious, all I need to do is spend some time with my dogs in order to feel better. Somehow, they always know when I need a good cuddle. Just a few quiet minutes lying beside or playing with them is enough for me to go from blue to new, from frazzled to fresh.

As animals are such a big part of my life, I looked into the phenomenon to gain a better scientific understanding of it.

Ask almost any pet owner and you’re likely to hear similar accounts. What is it about our pet family members that make them such effective mood boosters and calming forces? As animals are such a big part of my life, I looked into the phenomenon to gain a better scientific understanding of it.

Good Chemistry with Pets

It turns out that we literally have “good chemistry” with our pets, especially dogs. Studies have shown that human-animal interactions, such as gazing, stroking, and cuddling with your dog, increase levels of oxytocin in the brain. Informally known as the “love hormone,” oxytocin plays a role in pair-bonding (e.g., mother and infant), socialization, and stress relief; and creates a sense of calm, comfort, and focus. Studies have also demonstrated that oxytocin levels rise in dogs when they are interacting with their owners, suggesting that the human-dog bond goes both ways. Other studies have proven that interactions with pets reduce levels of the three major stress hormones: cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

My three dogs — Edison, Bam Bam, and Mocha — are a part of my active lifestyle, which also makes them good for my physical health. Not only do they guarantee that I’ll get in a couple of walks every day, they are often good running companions. Dogs typically love to run, so taking them along for a jog or a hike can help get you out the door and provide that extra bit of motivation that might otherwise be lacking. However, it is important for people to know their dog’s limits so that they don’t overdo it.

According to a study of more than 2,000 adults, dog owners who walk their dogs regularly get more exercise and are less likely to be obese than those who don’t own or walk a dog. In another investigation of more than 2,500 older adults ages 71-82, dog walkers walked faster and for longer periods of time than their counterparts who didn’t walk regularly. They were also more active at home and tend to be happier and less lonely.

Pets as Friend Finders

Whether I’m walking my dogs in my neighborhood, taking them to a park, or hanging out with them at a coffee shop, I always meet new people. I’ve also made some of my closest friends due to our mutual love for our pets. Thus, my dogs have been very good for my social life and, in turn, my happiness. These personal experiences are validated by current research. According to a 2015 survey of nearly 2,700 men and women in four cities (Perth, Australia; San Diego; Portland, Oregon; and Nashville, Tennessee), pet owners were more likely to become acquainted with people in their neighborhoods than non-pet owners. Among pet owners, dog owners in the three U.S. cities were more likely than owners of other types of pets to consider people whom they met through their pet as a friend. Lastly, approximately 40 percent of pet owners reported receiving some form of social support (e.g., emotional) from people whom they met through their pet.

I recently needed to get an EKG. Because my resting heart rate was significantly lower than average, they repeated it. The second EKG rendered a similar result. Although outside of the normal range, my doctor assured me that my heart rate is low because my heart is very strong. Might this be because I have dogs? I don’t know for sure, but research has shown that pet owners have a lower risk of heart disease, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Dogs also benefit patients who already have cardiovascular disease; they're not only four times more likely to be alive after a year if they own a dog, but they're also more likely to survive a heart attack. Similarly, according to another study, current and former cat owners were 40 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack and 30 percent less likely to die of other cardiovascular diseases.

In addition to the benefits of pet ownership covered above, it’s alleged that pets can alleviate allergies and boost immune function; provide comfort and social bonding to people suffering from Alzheimer’s; enhance social skills in kids with autism; relieve symptoms of PTSD; help fight cancer; reduce pain levels; and more.

Dog run, anyone?


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