July 5, 2018

The health benefit of pets

Pet owners have known all along that animal companions are good for our health, and research backs up the claims. While dogs and cats get most of the recognition, birds, rabbits, fish and even horses and pigs can fill an important role in our lives.

UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain understands the benefits personally ever since she found the dog of her dreams – a black miniature poodle named Belle.

“The one thing that struck me about owning a pet is the social benefit,” said Mirgain. “Strangers will stop me when I’m out walking with her, other pet owners usually stop to chat.”

In a time when Britain now has a “Minister of Loneliness” and the majority of age groups report feelings of loneliness, being a part of something that creates social connections can be critically important.

“Untreated loneliness can have significant implications for our health,” said Mirgain. “It has been linked to heart disease, depression, diabetes and suicide.”

While a pet alone won’t necessarily resolve feelings of loneliness, there’s no question they make connecting a little easier and help give people a sense of purpose.

“Owning a pet opens up a new world of meeting people and brings us outside our routine,” said Mirgain.

While pet owners whose animals enjoy scratching furniture or chewing on new shoes might not feel relaxed, pets do decrease stress levels in the body. Interacting with pets causes the hormone oxytocin (the “love hormone”) to release, increases levels of beta endorphins and dopamine and decreases cortisol levels. These hormones influence feelings of well-being – joy, calm, even love and connection. There are physical benefits from caring for a pet as well.

“Pet owners, especially dog owners, exercise more and have lower cardiac disease risk,” said Mirgain. “But benefits aren’t limited to specific types of pets.”

She cites one study that found cat ownership led to a 30 percent reduction in the risk of fatal heart attacks, while another study found residents of a geriatric rehabilitation unit experienced improved focus, enhanced interactions and left their rooms more frequently when caged birds were introduced to the facility. Even renowned nurse and caretaker Florence Nightingale prescribed pet companionship for her patients.

“There are several organizations, like the Horses for Heroes Program, that bring animals together with certain individuals – like veterans – to help with psychological, emotional and social needs,” Mirgain said, noting that American Family Children’s Hospital has a Pet Pals program that brings visiting dogs to patients and their families.

For those who might not be in a position to own a pet of their own, the good news is time spent in an animal’s company can offer benefits as well.

“Just petting an animal can help lower blood pressure,” said Mirgain.

Pets are such a personal preference, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation, but the joy a pet can bring can truly be life-changing.