Our four-legged friends are good for a lot more than cuddling. Research suggests that they can get us moving, improve our immune systems, and work as mental-health boosters. Here are five ways pets make us happier and healthier.
1. They're great stress-busters. Spending time with a pet may help relieve stress. Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University studied a dog-friendly retail business with 450 employees that had about 20 to 30 dogs at the office on any given day. The study looked at what happened to employees' stress levels when they brought their dogs to work versus leaving them at home. After the bring-your-dog-to-work days, the participants experienced a decline in stress levels and one-fourth of the workers reported an increase in productivity, INC reports. The researchers also noted that often even those without their own dogs would take coworkers' dogs for walks, resulting in added exercise and brief positive socializing between peers.
2. They may help fight loneliness and anxiety. There's nothing like a wagging tail or a playful meow to turn around a bad day, but research suggests that animal therapy can take that feel-good vibe a step further. Researchers at Idaho State asked students to rank their feelings of loneliness and anxiety. They then brought a trained therapy dog, Sophie, to a college campus for the students to pet and play with. When asked about their negative feelings again, the students reported a 60 percent decrease in loneliness and anxiety.
Other researchers conducted three small studies to examine the mental health benefits of pets of all kinds. The results suggested that people who owned pets felt a greater sense of belonging, were better at dealing with rejection, and overall, were happier and healthier than non-pet owners.
3. They may boost our immune systems. But you have to start young. Newborns with a pet dog at home may be less likely to suffer from allergies than newborns without a dog at home, according to the University of Wisconsin's School of Medicine and Public Health. Children born into families with dogs are 15 percent less likely to develop atopic dermatitis, a type of eczema, and 17 percent less likely to suffer from wheezing by the time they turn three.
4. They keep us active. Dog owners tend to get more exercise, according to the NIH. One study followed the exercise habits of 2,000 people. The findings? Those who own dogs, walk them, and were therefore more fit and less obese than those who didn't own dogs. Another study suggested that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs moved faster and longer than those who didn't. Older dog walkers also had an easier time getting around in their daily lives at home.
5. They're good for your heart. While some quality time with a furry friend may certainly warm the soul, research shows that pets are literally good for heart health. A small body of research suggests that pet owners seem to have lower levels of cholesterol and triglyceride levels, a type of fat found in our blood, and a lower risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
Cats may be especially good for the heart. Researchers at the University of Minnesota conducted a study that involved more than 4,000 people. They found that the risk of dying from a heart attack was 40 percent higher for people who had never owned a cat.