7 Remarkable Ways Your Pet Can Add Years to Your Life

Pet ownership brings unconditional love, plus some unexpected health benefits.

Medically reviewed in February 2020

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There are countless reasons to love your furriest family member—those big adoring eyes, the wet kisses, the warm nuzzles after a long day. And now you can add a growing number of health benefits to the list too.

We spoke with Shawn Daugherty, PsyD, a clinical psychologist from the Medical Center of Aurora in Colorado to learn how pet ownership can boost your health and add years to your life.

Want to discover other ways to lengthen your life? Get easy-to-implement tips from Dan Buettner's Blue Zones, or the places on the planet with the most people over age 100.

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They keep you on your toes

Residents of Blue Zones, areas with the world’s longest living people, share an important habit: They “move naturally,” or exercise more by building activity into their routine.

Research shows an active lifestyle results in a longer lifespan—and your pet can help get you moving, says Dr. Daugherty.

Aim to walk your dog for 30 minutes to two hours daily. (Cats need about 30 minutes of active play.) Your pup 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.

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Pets give you a sense of purpose

A sense of purpose doesn’t mean crossing items off a to-do list or overloading your schedule. It means having someone or something that:

  • Motivates you to get out of bed each day
  • Brings you joy
  • Gives you a sense of fulfillment

Longevity research suggests this simple principle may add up to seven years to your life expectancy. “Probably the number one habit that’s likely to expand your life is finding something you truly care about,” explains Daugherty. “For many, pets provide that source of love, connection and purpose.”

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Fur babies strengthen your heart

“When people interact with their pets, their heart rate slows and their blood pressure decreases. For many, a pet brings a sense of calm and inner peace,” says Daugherty. That may be 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 nationwide study in which cat owners:

  • Had lower rates of heart disease
  • Were less likely to die from a heart-related problem

These findings held true even when people already had risky conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.

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Pets ease anxiety and depression

More than one in four US adults are living with a mental health illness like anxiety or depression. While medications and treatments vary for each condition, there’s one therapy that can work alongside almost any care plan—being near your pet.

Spending time with your pet ups your level of oxytocin, a hormone responsible for feelings of bonding and security. Oxytocin also:

  • Reduces stress
  • Boosts confidence
  • Encourages social interaction
  • Improves memory and learning

On top of that, your pet’s unconditional love may serve as a buffer against everyday stress and a comfort during times of change.

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They boost your immune system

“Pets also reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” says Daugherty. “Ongoing stress weakens the immune system, limiting your ability to fight off a variety of serious illnesses. But your pet can counteract this by helping you 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 bring can train their immune system to fight allergies and infections early on. In fact, babies with pets are less likely to:

  • Get an ear infection or need antibiotics in their first year of life
  • Develop asthma or allergies
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Animals help kids grow up happy and strong

Children often find it easier to confide in an animal best friend when they’re hurt or upset. Having a pet can teach kids about empathy and provide comfort as they face milestones in their development.

A growing number of studies have found that when dogs are nearby, children on the autism spectrum—a range of developmental disorders that often make it difficult to communicate, among other symptoms—have an easier time:

  • Talking to people
  • Making eye contact
  • Making physical contact

Children with autism even smiled more and cried less when a dog was present. To find out about adopting an autism therapy dog, contact the North Star Foundation.

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Pets complete your tribe

“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 health habits is:

  • A science-backed way to live to 100
  • A core Blue Zone principle

Reach out to healthy, like-minded animal lovers to help 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, enjoying Wine at Five with friends (and their cats) is also a Blue Zone principle.

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