Get a New Best Friend: Boost Your Health With a Pet

In a day when citizens have been discouraged from getting close to other people, or even leaving the house, pets provided a saving grace to many, keeping spirits up and conferring numerous, scientifically-proven life benefits.

For example, did you know that a review of many studies since 1950 has found that dog owners have a lower risk of death? This may result from a lowered blood pressure and heart rate and an improved response to stress. A Swedish study of 3.4 million people, ages 40 to 80, found that having a dog was associated with a 23 percent reduction in death from heart disease and a 20 percent lower risk of dying from any cause over the 12 years of the study. That’s a remarkable difference!

Scientists at Washington State University have shown that even petting a dog for ten minutes offers significant benefits. The “feel-good hormone” oxytocin can be boosted in both dogs and people when you look into your pet’s eyes. Pets have been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in military veterans, people with other traumatic events, hospitalized people and the disabled.

Something about having a pet — or a person — close by seems to strengthen us. When people are deprived of the closeness they typically have with others, they are more prone to feel depressed, have weakened immune systems and experience more pain. A pet can alleviate many of these problems — and nobody ever tells you to “social distance” from your furry companion.

Dogs tend to increase people’s exercise, too. We walk our dogs and play with them (and with cats and other pets). We often bathe our dogs and provide their overall care. Even hauling bags of dog food home and dishing out their daily vittles keeps us somewhat active. Dog-owners are nearly four times more likely than non-dog-owners to meet their daily physical activity goals.

Pets have been shown to encourage cognitive stimulation and improved behavior in children. Pets also increase understanding of others. A study at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University concluded that people who have a strong attachment to a pet feel more connected in their human relationships and communities.

Dogs help us be more social. Walking a dog can make us more approachable to someone who wants to start a conversation. One study showed that 40 percent of dog owners had an easier time making friends. A dog’s presence often makes you appear more likable and attractive. A study showed that men and women swipe right more frequently when a photo of a pet is included in the profile picture.

My niece and nephew recently got new puppies, and I think this gave joy and comfort to them during the recent, turbulent year. If you find yourself in the market for a pet, be aware of the commitment! Do you have the ability to take care of it? And the financial means to pay for food, grooming and medical bills? A pet owner typically spends around $500 to $1600 per year.

Other great questions to ask before you acquire a pet is, how big do you want it to be? Will it outgrow your ability or desire to care for it? Will it fit in your present living circumstance? And even if those puppies look cute squirming around in the pen or with their mama, puppies are a handful at home! They require a lot of potentially frustrating training, plus time and energy compared to an adult dog. On the other hand, they can be rewarding to raise.

Keep an eye, too, on the particular breed, or the individual, which may be prone to behavioral problems such as barking all night or separation anxiety. This can be especially true of rescue pets. Ask friends and family about their experiences, and consider consulting a pet professional such as a local veterinarian.

One thing is for sure: There is almost always a good pet out there for those who want one — and the science shows that a pet can greatly enhance your physical and mental health.

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