Pet ownership brings unconditional love, plus some unexpected health benefits.
By Rose Hayes
There are a million reasons to love your furriest family member: those big adoring eyes, their wet kisses, the comforting nuzzles at the end of a long day—and now you can add a growing number of health benefits to the list too.
Residents of Blue Zones, areas with the world’s longest living populations, share an important habit: They “move naturally,” or exercise more by building activity into their routine.
Research shows that an active lifestyle results in people living longer, says Dr. Daugherty. Going out and walking your dog or playing with your cat can help you stay active by propelling you to move.
Aim to walk your dog for a daily total of 30 minutes to two hours (cats need about 30 minutes of active play). Your dog will thank you and so will your waistline: Dog owners are more likely to meet weekly exercise requirements and less likely to be overweight than non-owners or those who skip walk time.
Having a sense of purpose doesn’t mean crossing items off your to-do list or overloading your schedule. It means you have a person or a cause that:
The importance of living with purpose is another value that people share across Blue Zones. In fact, longevity research suggests that this simple principle may add up to seven years to your life.
“Probably the number one habit that’s likely to expand your life is finding something that you truly care about,” explains Daugherty. “For many people, pets provide that source of love, connection and purpose.”
“When people interact with their pets, their heart rate slows and their blood pressure drops. For most individuals, their pet brings a sense of calm and inner peace,” says Daugherty. In fact, just petting your dog or cat may lower your blood pressure.
That’s one reason why dog owners are 75 percent more likely to survive the year after a heart attack than those without a canine companion. It also helps to explain one nation-wide study in which cat owners:
These findings held true even when people had risky conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.
If you have a mental health condition like anxiety or depression, you’re not alone: More than one in four U.S. adults are living with a mental health illness. While the causes and symptoms of each condition may vary, there’s one therapy that could work alongside almost any treatment plan—being near your pet.
Spending time with your pet ups your level of oxytocin, a hormone that causes feelings of bonding and security. Oxytocin also helps to:
On top of that, your pet’s unconditional love may serve as a buffer against everyday stress and a comfort you during times of change.
“Pets also reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” says Daugherty. “Ongoing stress weakens your immune system, limiting your ability to fight off a whole variety of serious illnesses. But your pet helps you to feel calm and connected.”
Having a dog or cat in the house may strengthen your child’s immune system too. Exposure to the fur, dander and germs that pets often bring can train their immune system to fight allergies and infections early on. In fact, babies with pets are less likely to:
Children often find it easiest to confide in an animal best friend when they’re hurt or upset. Having a pet can teach kids important lessons about empathy and provide comfort as they face important life milestones.
A growing number of studies have found that when dogs are nearby, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—a developmental disability that makes it difficult to communicate with others—have an easier time:
“When you walk your dog, you meet people. Think about it—when you pass someone who’s friendly and happy, and their dog is excited to see you, it's an opportunity to connect,” says Dr. Daugherty.
Finding “the right tribe," or a close group of friends who share your healthy habits is:
Reaching out to healthy, like-minded animal lovers can help you build your tribe. Start a dog-walking group or strike up conversations at the park. Cat owners may be more inclined to indoor gatherings—but luckily, an occasional glass of wine with friends (and their cats) is also a Blue Zone principle.