4 Ways Pets Improve Your Health

I’ve always loved animals. I should clarify: I’ve always loved other people’s animals. Those I didn’t have to feed, walk, or clean up after. Anytime I dreamed about throwing the Frisbee with my hypothetical yellow lab at the park, my next vision was of me walking Wilson (his codename!) on snowy, windy, miserable January mornings. Or of me holding a plastic bag filled with Wilson’s poop.

I much prefer sleeping in on cold mornings. And not carrying dog poop. Not to mention the barking. Shut up already, Wilson!

So I remained pet-less. That changed last fall when I met 5-week-old Pixie, a stray kitten my kids fell in love with. Pix is everything cats aren’t supposed to be: social, affectionate, and whip smart. In other words, she’s the dog I never thought I’d have. After a long day at work, she inevitable jumps in my lap and starts purring. I find myself confiding in her. At first, this felt crazy. Now it feels good.

I, of course, am not alone. According to the American Pet Products Association, 62 percent of Americans own a pet. There are 86 million cats and 78 million dogs roaming homes across the country. This is a good thing because, it turns out, pets are good for our health. When we think about pets saving lives, we picture dogs sniffing for victims in hurricane rubble. But, truth is, if you own a pet, he or she is saving—at the very least, improving—your life every day. Here are four ways how.

1. Pets Keep Your Heart Healthy

According to a recent study, pet owners have higher heart-rate variability—the heart’s ability to cope with various situations—than those without animals. Low heart-rate variability can increase your risk of dying from heart disease.

Previous research confirms the heart-healthy finding: In 1980, Erika Friedmann, Ph.D., now a professor at the school of nursing at the University of Maryland, followed 92 men and women hospitalized for either heart attacks or angina pectoris. She found that over the following year, 11 of the 39 pet-less patients died, while only three of the 53 owners of dogs or other companion animals died.

And an American Journal of Cardiology study in the mid-’90s found that, among 369 patients with a dangerous form of arrhythmia, only one of 87 dog owners died the following year. Meanwhile, 19 of 282 patients without dogs did not survive. Of course, petting Fido is no guarantee that your heart will never attack. Make sure you also follow the 10 Golden Rules for Protecting Your Heart.

2. Pets Reduce Your Stress

A pet can be a real life de-stressor. University at Buffalo researchers gave 24 hypertensive stockbrokers a dog or cat along with antihypertensive drugs called ACE inhibitors. Another 24 got the pills, but no pet.

In follow-up testing 6 months later, all the test participants enjoyed significant reductions in their resting blood pressure. But during stress-inducing tasks, such as public speaking or math equations, those on drugs alone still showed dramatic spikes in blood pressure. Those who had the social support of their pets showed no such elevations. They also performed measurably better on the stressful tasks. Here are more easy ways to Conquer Your Stress Instantly!

3. Pets Improve Your Self-Esteem

A Miami University study found that all pet owners—yeah, we’re talking lizards and goldfish owners too—show higher levels of self-esteem, are more extroverted, and tend to be less lonely than nonowners.

“It isn’t so much about the animal,” says Allen McConnell, Ph.D., professor at Miami University and author of the study. It’s more about the attributes of a companion that an owner gives to a pet, he says. If you feel like you have a friend in your pet, it can have the benefits that real friends do. Studies have shown that pets offer social support in the same way humans do—this is, by lowering your levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone.

In other words, if snakes are your thing, and you see yours as having human qualities, then you can see these added benefits, says McConnell.

4. Pets Help You Stay Fit

New dog owners quickly discover that their pet’s insatiable love for walks is a powerful incentive to abandon their couches. Studies have shown that dog owners who regularly walk their canines have a significantly lower body-mass index, along with daily activity levels that are 11 percent higher, than those who don't walk their pets.

This leads to better health overall. Researchers in the United Kingdom examined the health status of adults after they acquired either a dog or a cat. Both groups, the data showed, experienced a "highly significant reduction in minor health problems during the first month following pet acquisition." In dog owners, this effect was still holding strong after 10 months.

Cat owners didn’t see the same health benefits continue after 10 months, presumably because their pets aren’t as playful as they were as kittens. I’ll see if that happens with Pixie. Right now, at 5 months, her appetite for exercise is insatiable—she chases balls, plays hide and seek, and didn’t even mind an accidental swim in the bathtub. Hmm, wonder if she can catch a Frisbee?

Ready to adopt a healthier lifestyle? Find out which dog is best for you!

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