Twenty-nine years ago, in 1988, the first survey was conducted to determine how many U.S. households owned a pet and the answer was 56%. Now, according to the American Pet Products Association, that percentage has risen to 68% in 2017. That’s 84.6 million U.S. homes in which birds, cats, dogs, fish, reptiles, small animals, and horses cohabitate in some way with their human companions.
What do these millions of people have in common? Well, whether they are aware of it or not, they’re all reaping certain health benefits that have been attributed to pet ownership, sometimes starting at their birth.
Health Boosts for Babies
If you grew up with pets in the home, you were probably entirely unaware that your furry friends were giving your greater exposure to dirt and allergens than you might have had otherwise. While that may sound like a bad thing (and certainly can be if proper hygiene is not also maintained), your immune system was being activated to a greater degree during that critical stage of development. Playing with, cuddling, petting, feeding, and walking your pets—all of the normal activities you’d do—were giving your immune system an extra boost and preparing you for a healthier life.
Pediatrician James E. Gern conducted studies that showed a specific correlation between infant health and the presence of a dog in the home: babies reared alongside dogs were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies (19% versus 33%), to have eczema, and to develop asthma.
While there may certainly be extenuating circumstances that result in exceptions to this rule, Gern’s findings strongly promote the advantages of pet/baby cohabitation.
Health Boosts for Young Adults
Moving right along into adulthood: researchers have found that pet ownership for young adults and business professionals lowers blood pressure, mitigates the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and raises serotonin and dopamine levels naturally.
High Blood Pressure and Stress
High blood pressure and stress play a toxic role in impairing the immune system and contributing to heart disease. The body’s response to stress is to release cortisol and norepinephrine, chemicals that have been linked to plaque buildup and arterial damage.
Highly addictive drugs like heroin and cocaine flood the brain (to depletion) with serotonin and dopamine. Pet ownership, in comparison, provides ample opportunity to feel the happy sensations these chemicals produce, but safely and naturally.
Health Boosts for the Elderly
Did you know that some life insurance companies look favorably on clients over the age of 75 who own pets? The reason is that caring for pets provides exercise and companionship, both essential to mental and physical health. Other studies on pet ownership and the elderly have also shown that having animals in the home of Alzheimer’s patients decrease the likelihood of outbursts and alleviate some of the burden on caregivers.
As a result of the above findings, many nursing homes and senior living communities have adopted policies and services that facilitate pet therapy for their patients and residents.
Is Pet Ownership for You?
Pet ownership is a mixed bag of perks and drawbacks. Not everyone may be in a position to own one, but there are species and breeds to suit (and benefit) most any lifestyle.