The Pet Effect: man and woman in bed laughing with pet dog

All pet owners believe that their furry friends bring them a sense of joy. But research suggests the pet effect also brings a powerful boost to our mental and physical health, relieving loneliness, reducing stress levels, and even increasing our life span.

Dog-owners know how their heart soars when they spot their pooch bounding across the park towards them, tail wagging. Cat-lovers relish the calming comfort their purring pets give them, as cuddly and reassuring as a fur-covered hot-water bottle. Even hamsters lighten our outlook, as they start performing their Spider-Man antics around the cage. And let’s not forget fish, which bring a moment of meditative serenity as we watch them swim around the tank.

According to a poll, 95% of us think of our pet as a member of the family – no matter how old we are. Pets offer unparalleled companionship, reduce feelings of isolation, help calm jagged nerves, increase mindfulness and lower blood pressure and heart rate, according to research. “Like all fun things, playing with pets leads to an elevation of neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, which support feelings of pleasure and calm,” says psychologist and psychotherapist Natasha Tiwari. Here are five more research-backed ways that owning a pet improves your health.

1. They help reduce stress

Stroking a pet releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, which helps you relax. A recent Israeli study suggested that anxious adults who were given an animal to hold showed a reduction in stress levels, and interestingly it didn’t matter whether the animal was cuddly – the same response was seen with a tortoise as with a rabbit. Other studies have shown that the pet effect lowered the presence of the stress hormone cortisol, and a survey by the charity Cats Protection showed that more than nine out of 10 cat owners believed that owning a cat helped their mental health, with 72% agreeing that cat-stroking had a positive effect on mood. Even watching fish in an aquarium can boost wellbeing, according to research.

2. They stop us from feeling lonely

Social support – a proven antidote to anxiety and loneliness – can come on four legs, as well as two. Pets provide companionship for anyone living alone, which is crucial for mental health. A recent review of 17 papers showed that owning a pet was highly beneficial to anybody struggling with mental health issues. In fact, studies also suggest that just by looking into your pet’s eyes can give you a hit of oxytocin and prolactin, hormones that give you a happiness boost, which is a simple way to get the pet effect!

3. They help us make connections

Pets get us out of the house – even if that trip is to the vet, or shopping for pet food – and allow us to make connections with other like-minded people. Dog-owners will know the easy camaraderie that develops with other people out walking, and studies show that dog-owners value the opportunity their pet brings to meet others. Another benefit? They offer tactile therapy, getting us off our digital devices, out into the real world. “This is priceless in our smartphone-saturated times,” says Hilda Burke, psychotherapist and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook.   

4. They are good for our physical health

Study after study has correlated pet ownership with lower rates of blood pressure and heart disease; and research now suggests that owning a dog helps us live longer. A research analysis found that people who owned a dog were 65% less likely to die following a heart attack. Why? The study authors concluded that the lower risk of death associated with dog ownership could be due to an increase in physical activity due to regular dog walks and a decrease in loneliness and depression.

5. Finally – they offer us unconditional love

Pets don’t care if we’ve got a messy house, or have been turned down for a promotion, or failed a test. They don’t judge us; they are simply happy to see us. Studies show that this kind of unconditional love from the pet effect is good for us as it prompts the brain to release the feel-good chemical dopamine, helping us feel confident, grounded and have greater self-compassion. Pretty purrfect, all round. 

For other ways to boost your mood, check out our article on 11 science-backed ways to be happier.

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