The surprising health perks of having a pet

There’s been a pandemic-induced surge in pet ownership — and for good reason. A furry friend can bring much happiness to your life, especially for older adults.

The benefits of adding a pet to your household are numerous (cue the Snoopy dance!). Research shows that owning a pet is not only a boon to your physical health but can also keep your brain sharp, boost your mood, and so much more.

Learn why having a dog, cat, or other animal companion can be good for your body and mind.

Pets boost your emotional and physical health

It’s hard not to smile when a furball is scampering around your house. The pitter-patter of paws can also be a reassuring and heartwarming sound if you’re home alone.

“Companion animals can help alleviate loneliness,” says Nancy R. Gee, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. “And older adults are particularly vulnerable to the negative impact of loneliness.”

Interacting with pets — even if you’re just cuddling with kitty on the couch — helps the mind in many ways. It has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone, making you feel more relaxed and less worried.

But that special bond us humans have with animals doesn’t just lead to feeling calmer and happier. It can also get you moving, having a positive impact on your health, too. A 2023 study found that pet owners had a higher level of physical activity than those who didn’t have a pet.

“Older adults who own pets are more likely to be physically active and have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Gee. Because when your dog has to go, you have no choice but to get up and take them out for a walk.

Regularly walking or playing with pets can also decrease blood pressure and cholesterol levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Pets are good for your brain health

It makes sense that walking a dog regularly would help keep you fit and in a happier mood. But for older adults, owning a pet is also linked to better cognitive functioning, according to the CDC. Pet owners may see less of a decline in thinking, remembering, and making decisions.

In fact, research suggests that regular contact with pets, including pet ownership, is linked to better cognitive function in people who don’t own or have regular contact with pets. That’s because pets provide older adults, who may be more prone to social isolation than others, with a someone to talk to, receive sympathy from, and interact with. And social isolation has been linked to dementia, according to the CDC.

The benefit may be even greater for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that people with Alzheimer’s who had a pet were more likely to keep doing daily activities, such as taking care of themselves. For those with the disease, it may even slow down the progression of symptoms.

How to choose the right pet for your lifestyle

To figure out which pet is a good fit for you, think about your temperament and how you like to spend your time. If you enjoy going for walks and sticking to a daily routine, a dog may be your ideal companion, since you’ll need to take it out several times a day. (There are lots of older pets looking for homes, too — if you don’t want the energy and potential shoe-eating of a younger animal, such as a puppy.)

If you are a bit finicky and would rather keep it more low maintenance — though don’t mind some ankle rubbing — a cat may be more your style. (Remember: You can adopt an older one versus a kitten, if you’re looking for a less needy companion.) And if you would rather not have something roaming around your house, then consider an animal like a bird or fish.

Have a backup plan

Life can change unexpectedly, and at some point, you may find yourself unable to care for your pet. Think about having a backup person in place ahead of time — someone who you trust and will offer a home to your furry friend if needed. Whether it’s a family member or friend, make sure that person has the space and time to support your pet long-term.

How to get the benefits if you can’t own a pet

Even when you can’t commit to a pet, there are still ways to take advantage of the brain-and-body benefits — and do a good deed too! Volunteer at a local shelter or dog-training club or offer to walk or pet-sit for friends, neighbors, or relatives when they are working or traveling.

Gee says it’s also possible to request therapy dog visits from places such as Pet Partners or the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. “These visits are free of charge and can take place on a routine basis,” she says.

Whether it’s full-time or part-time, a loving ball of fur — or feathers or fins — does a brain and body good.

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Additional sources:
Pet ownerships and the pandemic: American Veterinary Medical Association
Pets and blood pressure, cognitive functioning: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Pet ownership and older people: Innovation in Aging
Pet ownership and social isolation: Scientific Reports, Frontiers in Veterinary Science, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Pets and preventing cardiovascular disease: Current Hypertension Reports
Pets and Alzheimer’s disease: Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease