Animals have undergone a dramatic transformation in roles in the past few centuries. Whereas animals used to serve as mere assistants in survival and aids to physical labor, they have now edged their noses into people’s homes and beds. Undoubtedly, pets do affect certain aspects of human health, such as the likelihood of developing heart disease (Patronek & Glickman 1993), as well as depression and psychological wellbeing (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl 2008). But would it be accurate to say that pet owners have better overall wellbeing, physically and psychologically, than non-owners?
The research indicating that pets are beneficial to one’s physical health is plentiful. Heart disease, the number one killer of humans in the United States, is often caused by a mix of physical and psychosocial factors, including hypertension, high anxiety, social isolation, and elevated plasma cholesterol levels. In a landmark study by Patronek and Glickman in 1993, they hypothesized that pets would lower blood pressure, lessen anxiety, and decrease feelings of social isolation, along with a host of other positive effects, thereby leading to a lesser risk for coronary heart disease for pet owners compared to non-owners. Not only did pet owners have a lesser risk, but even for those that had heart attacks, the mortality rate of pet owners was significantly lower, and the survival rate past the one year mark was significantly higher. Numerous studies have also shown that pets do indeed significantly reduce the risk of hypertension. One study by Friedmann, Thomas, Son, Chapa, & McCune (2013) measured the systolic and diastolic blood pressures of various dog owners at home every twenty minutes of their waking hours and had them keep a diary of who was in the room and what they were doing for each time their reading was taken. With everything taken into account, both systolic and diastolic blood pressures were significantly lower when the participant’s dog was in the room with them. The same study also tested cat owners, and the diastolic blood pressure of the cat owners was significantly lower when their cat was present in the room with them. Dog owners have also been known to have significantly fewer minor ailments such as colds and headaches than they had prior to ownership (Wells 2009).
In terms of physical activity, adults with dogs take 25% more steps per day than adults without dogs, and children with dogs are significantly more active than children without them (Owen et al. 2010). In a study by Rebecca Utz (2014), she established through the use of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study that dog and cat owners were less likely to be obese and more likely to report excellent health. It reasons to say that this could be in part to the fact that dog and cat owners reported significantly higher participation in all types of exercise behaviors; they were likely to walk at least a mile five times a week, and participated significantly more in bicycling, weight lifting, and swimming. Another study found that dog owners got more exercise, were fitter, and were seen less often by doctors than non-owners (Heady, Na, & Zheng, 2008). These results were significant among all demographics, but particularly among middle aged women, with the dog owning factor being the most significant predictor of physical health. This same study also got significant results in the sleep departments—dog owners had more nights of uninterrupted, high quality sleep than non-owners, which could lead to other effects such as less depression and better psychological condition, which are known to be associated with quality of sleep.
Psychologically, pets have also proved to benefit their owners. There are particular benefits for those in one person households. One study in Switzerland concluded that those who lived in one person households and owned cats were less likely to report being in a bad mood than those who lived alone without a cat (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl 2010). In the same report, studies also showed that female university students and female seniors were less likely to report being lonely if they had a pet than if they did not. An additional study saw similar benefits, with a lessening in depression and feelings of loneliness resulting from simple benefits of having animals, such as their presence in the room, and their making the human feel needed (Wells 2011). Other studies have shown that pets improve psychological wellbeing by increasing social interactions between people, such as getting their dogs together for a “play date,” and going to dog parks and interacting with other owners, as well as the positive social effects that come from positive comments and attention that come from owning a pet such as a dog or cat that people are often drawn to (Wells 2009). Pets have also been shown to alleviate highly stressful life occurrences such as death in the family or divorce, and can reduce feelings of anxiousness, depression, and isolation (Wells 2009). One study even showed that all these benefits were not even isolated to the primary caretaker—they extend to everyone living in the house with the pet (Lewis, Krägeloh, & Shepherd, 2009). These are some great studies showing impact that pets have on wellbeing.
Antonacopoulos, N., & Pychyl, T. A. (2010). An examination of the potential role of pet ownership, human social support and pet attachment in the psychological health of individuals living alone. Anthrozoös, 23(1), 37-54. doi: 10.2752/175303710X12627079939143
Friedmann, E., Thomas, S. A., Son, H., Chapa, D., & McCune, S. (2013). Pet’s presence and owner’s blood pressures during the daily lives of pet owners with pre- to mild hypertension. Anthrozoös, 26(4), 535-550. doi:10.2752/175303713X13795775536138
Heady, B., Na, F., & Zheng, R. (2008). Pet dogs benefit owners’ health: A “natural” experiment in China. Social Indicators Research, 87(3), 481-493. doi:10.1007/s11205-007-9142-2
Lewis, A., Krägeloh, C. U., & Shepherd, D. (2009). Pet ownership, attachment, and health-related quality of life in New Zealand. E-Journal of Applied Psychology, 5(1), 96-101.
McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1239-1252. doi:10.1037/a0024506
Owen, C. G., Nightingale, C. M., Rudnicka, A., Ekelund, U., McMinn, A, van Sluijs, E, et al. (2010). Family dog ownership and levels of physical activity in childhood: Findings from the Child Heart and Health Study in England. American Journal of Public Health, 100(9), 1669-1671. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2009.188193
Patronek, G.J., & Glickman, L. T. (1993). Pet ownership protects against the risks and consequences of coronary heart disease. Medical Hypotheses, 40(4), 245-249. doi:10.1016/0306-9877(93)90049-V
Utz, R. (2014). Walking the dog: The effect of pet ownership on human health and health behaviors. Social Indicators Research, 116(2), 327-339. doi:10.1007/s11205-013-0299-6