Slash stress, dodge disability, combat cognitive decline, and MORE
If you’ve been a reader of mine for a while, you’ve probably heard me talk about my beagle, Remington. He’s a boundless source of joy, a faithful companion, and a constant reminder of what unconditional love looks like.
Of course, he also keeps me up and moving—which helps boost my own health in more ways than one.
Indeed, pet ownership provides many mental and physical health benefits that can translate to a longer and happier life.
Research reveals how these furry (or feathery, leathery, etc.) friends help you slash stress, dodge disability, combat cognitive decline, and MORE.
Here’s how you can take advantage of these many benefits—and how you can take care of your faithful companions, in return.
The need for companionship
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation and social distancing have become the norm—even as restrictions begin to lift. As a result, our mental health continues to suffer.
Researchers at the University of South Australia set out to determine if pet ownership could help combat feelings of loneliness and distress. They interviewed 32 people in 2020—when lockdowns were in full effect.
Their results were published in The Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy (JBEP). And they found that more than 90 percent of respondents felt simply touching their pets brought comfort and relaxation.1
In addition, many participants felt their pets could sense when they weren’t feeling well—mentally or physically—and moved closer to them.
What’s more, respondents hinted that the feelings were mutual: their pets seemed to get similar pleasure and comfort from touch, too.
Of course, this isn’t too surprising. The power of touch is often overlooked, especially among older adults. (This is something that has become quite apparent during the pandemic.)
But pets can help fill that void. Even better, this study wasn’t limited to furry friends, like dogs and cats. Interviewees also said birds, horses, sheep, and even reptiles provided a sense of comfort.
Mental AND physical health benefits
In another study conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from the U.K. explored how pets helped their owners cope with the emotional fallout of social isolation.
They conducted a survey of nearly 6,000 participants during the country’s lockdown period, between late March and early June of 2020. About 90 percent reported having at least one pet.2
Here again, whether it was a dog, cat, guinea pig, or fish, that animal companion ended up providing a significant buffer against the emotional and psychological stress of lockdowns.
In fact, the lower subjects scored in mental health at the beginning of the lockdown, the stronger their emotional bond was with their pet by the end of it.
Of course, this strong emotional bond created additional worry in 68 percent of respondents. They became concerned over access to veterinary care or finding subsequent care should they, themselves, become ill.
Still, I think it’s safe to say that the benefits here far outweigh the drawbacks. (Learn more about how to boost your pet’s overall health and well-being in the sidebar.)
Not to mention, nearly all respondents said their pet provided physical health benefits, too, by keeping them fit and active.
In other words, pet ownership can pull double duty. And this isn’t the only research to suggest as much…
Dodge disability with a dog
This next study is specifically for the dog lovers out there.
According to researchers in Japan, older dog owners may be at a lower risk of disability than non-dog owners.3
Researchers used questionnaires to gather data on 11,000 participants, ages 65 to 84, who owned dogs and cats. Here’s what they found…
Dog ownership slashed disability risk by about 50 percent, compared to those who had never owned a dog. Plus, dog owners who exercised regularly had an even lower risk of disability.
Cat ownership didn’t seem to impact disability risk. Which makes sense to me, since dog owners are the ones to typically take their four-legged friends for regular walks.
Walking helps maintain balance and muscle mass as you age—lessening your fall and fracture risk, which is a leading cause of disability among older adults.
Of course, that doesn’t mean owning a dog is the only way to reap these benefits. But if you’re someone who needs some extra motivation to get moving, perhaps adopting a dog is right for you.
Now, let’s move on to discuss how pet ownership might combat cognitive decline in older adults…
Researchers from the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor looked at cognitive data from over 1,350 people with an average age of 65. The data came from a large study of Medicare beneficiaries called the Health and Retirement Study.
All participants had normal cognitive skills at the study’s outset.4 Fifty-three percent owned pets, and 32 percent were considered long-term pet owners, where they owned pets for five years or more.
Throughout the study, participants were given multiple cognitive tests. Researchers used the tests to develop a score for each subject. They then compared these scores to years of pet ownership.
Ultimately, over the course of six years, researchers found cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate in people who owned pets. Plus, the difference was strongest for long-term pet owners.
Considering around 55 million people worldwide have dementia, I’d say this is great news. Because the truth is, we do have control over the health of our brains as we age. And now, research indicates pet ownership may offer a powerful, protective benefit.
Pet ownership requires commitment
It should be clear by now that pets contribute to our health in various ways. Those benefits can help you live a longer and happier life—regardless of what’s happening in the world.
So—what’s the catch?
Well, let’s face some facts: Pets aren’t for everyone. They’re a huge responsibility. They require time, money, and yes—a constant commitment.
These are all valid concerns that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
It’s not fair to bring a pet home if you aren’t willing or able to provide a safe, happy life in return. But if you CAN—well, as I outlined here today, the benefits are virtually endless.
And remember, some pets (like lizards and fish) aren’t as demanding as others (like dogs and cats). Not to mention, there are pet therapy services that make house calls— many of which will bring a trained dog to visit you for up to an hour. Plus, local shelters and rescues are always looking for extra helping hands.
Meaning there are various ways to take advantage of the mental and physical health benefits of pets in a way that best suits you.
If you ask me, pets (and animal encounters) are always worth it. (I’m sure the researchers would agree!) But with a smart and loving dog like Remington, I can’t help but be biased.
SIDEBAR: Feed your pets well
Just as pets take care of us, it’s imperative that we take care of them in return. That begins (and ends) with their weight.
According to recent survey results from the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, well over half the dogs in the U.S. are obese or overweight.5 Even worse? Most pet owners believed their pet’s weight was perfectly healthy.
But let me be clear: what you put in your pets’ bowls directly affects their health and wellness. (It’s the same case with humans!)
And the fact is, you could lose years of precious time with your pet simply by not paying attention to what they’re eating.
Personally, I make most of Remington’s food myself. And I don’t feed him anything that’s not fit for human consumption. That includes ingredients like corn, sugar, soy, and gluten.
In my view, that’s the simplest way to keep your pet’s weight and health on track. I also advise finding a trusted veterinarian to manage their health (and weight) over the years—and always take them for regular check-ups.
- “Pets, touch and COVID-19: Why our furry friends are lifesavers.” Science Daily, 12/01/2020. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/12/201201091831.htm)
- Elena Ratschen, et al. “Human-animal relationships and interactions during the Covid-19 lockdown phase in the UK: Investigating links with mental health and loneliness.” PLOS ONE. 2020 Sept 25. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0239397
- “Older Japanese dog owners may face lower risk of disability than non-dog owners, study finds.” Science Daily, 02/23/2022. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/02/220223143349.htm)
- 4. “Do pets have a positive effect on your brain health?” Science Daily, 02/23/2022. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/02/220223210035.htm)
- “Obesity plagues pets, industry being challenged to effect change.” The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. 13 March 2014.