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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Rx Pets: How Animal Companions Improve Our Health & Well-being

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” - Anatole France

During the pandemic, American pet ownership hit an all-time high of 70% of households having at least one pet. A full 10% added a new furry, feathered or scaled member to the family in December 2020 alone.

As a result, U.S. spending on all these critters was estimated to climb to nearly $110B in 2021. The industry is benefitting richly from what’s been termed the increasing ‘humanization’ of pets.

Part of the family

A 2015 Harris poll found that 95% of pet owners view their pets as a beloved family member.

We celebrate their birthdays. We buy them gifts. We dress them up. We get them vaccinated. To save their lives we pay for cancer treatments, which run $10K and up on average.

When it feels like chaos reigns in the streets and in the headlines, we turn to our beloved animals for comfort and consistency. No matter what happened during the day, pets await us at home with unconditional love.

Pets understand humans better than humans do.”
Ruchi Prabhu

Pets as ‘psychological kin’

Our pets agree with us and they’re always on our side. They would vote like us, and even for us, if they could.

It’s not hard to understand why pets can take the place of relationships with other people. Animals are more consistent and more easily understood. With animals, the lines are much more obvious; the motivations, clear.

Research has found that this emotional connection between people and their pets is deep. So deep in fact that animals in our lives are increasingly filling a role of ‘psychological-kin’, displacing an emotional role that had previously been filled by other people.

The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.” - Andy Rooney

A survey by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) found that 40% of married women said their pet provided them with more emotional support than did their husband or kids.

Perhaps as reward for their dogs’ loyalty (or maybe in retaliation for apathetic family members), a 2013 Georgia Regents University study found that more than 44% of women surveyed would opt to save their dog over another human.

Turns out that both payback – and mom’s favorite – are a you-know-what.

In the study, participants were presented with a hypothetical imminent-death-by-out-of-control-bus scenario in which they had to choose to save a dog or a person.

Women reported choosing to save a dog over another human being almost twice that of men. However, the more intimate the human relationship at stake, the less chance the dog is saved. Siblings and grandparents had the greatest chance of making it out alive, while foreign tourists and strangers would be sacrificed easily to save their dog’s life.

A nice personal trainer who actually gets results

There’s a lot of benefit we enjoy from our animals in return. Many studies link pets, and particularly dogs, with better health.

Dogs need to move, and now, so do you. Having a dog means committing to some level of physical exercise, bringing important health benefits.

It’s no surprise that people who own dogs walk more - even leisurely - than those who own cats or no pet at all. As such, dog ownership has been associated with weight-loss, lower blood pressure, and with better heart health - including a lower risk for heart disease. Research has also found that pet owners who survive a heart attack live longer than those without pets.

Altogether, the evidence points to dogs helping people stay healthier and recover better from illness. Their remarkable olfactory system can even alert us to hidden conditions like oncoming seizures and cancer.

Pets increase comfort, satisfaction; decrease stress

In investigating the connection between our pets and well-being, Bao and Schreer (2016) found that pet owners reported being more satisfied with their lives than people without pets.

There’s also something about animals that helps with healing and promotes calm. Research has linked animal companionship to feeling increased security, support and comfort in our lives.

Some of it is just plain physical. Human beings share a basic need for touch. Touching and interacting with pets increase dopamine and serotonin levels which relax us. At the same time animals help reduce cortisol, lowering stress levels.

Shiloh et al. (2010) found that anxiety was relieved in a lab experiment, when people under stress stroked either a rabbit or turtle. Fur or shelled, either animal helped - regardless of whether the participant reported liking animals or not.

A UC Davis study found that people with Alzheimer’s benefitted by having a cat or dog in the home by helping to reduce stress and anxious outbursts. Exposure to colorful fish and aquariums have also been shown to make a positive difference.

Dr. Dog, therapist

Because of their calming effect on people, dogs especially are increasingly employed as animal therapists in institutional settings: from children’s hospitals to schools; and residential homes to prisons.

More and more, animals are used in therapy and to help the disabled. One project by the Canines and Childhood Cancer (CCC) organization, showed how dogs reduced anxiety and calmed kids going through cancer treatments - as well as their stressed parents.

Other animal-assisted intervention (AAI) research connects dogs and horses to reduced anxiety and symptoms in PTSD patients, including veterans and child-abuse survivors.

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger & better in every way.”
- John Muir

And while the connections between our beloved animals and mental and physical health appear abundant, like all good preventative healthcare, it turns out that pet ownership is also largely unequal in who reaps the benefits.

Disproportionate pet ownership

Now in its 20th year, the California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) is the largest state health survey in the country. The CHIS is a large-scale telephone survey of over 40,000 randomly selected Californians, whose demographics of which are intended to reflect the wide diversity of the state.

It’s this data in 2003 that researchers from RAND Corporation and UCLA used as a basis to gauge the extent to which pets impact our health and our lives.

The 2017 report showed that pets are far more common among people with higher vs. lower incomes, people who are married instead of single, and with those that own a home rather than rent. It also reported that women are more likely to be pet owners than men.

It also unveiled a big racial and ethnic divide among people who own pets.

Researchers found that white people are much more likely to have pets. They found that black, Hispanic and Asian respondents surveyed were 50% less likely to own a dog and less than 33% as likely to own a cat than white participants.

Most strikingly, once researchers controlled for variables like race, marital status and income, the data showed no difference in health between people with pets and those without. The massive impact that race, income and access has on nutrition, healthcare and housing, among other factors, outweigh the pet factor when it comes to health outcomes.

So, while giving everyone a puppy would seem the obvious solution to all the world’s problems, sadly it is not. To the long list of inequity that we must acknowledge and work to upend, pet inequity must be added.

I have caught more ills from people sneezing over me and giving me virus infections than from kissing dogs.”
- Barbara Woodhouse

Pets and the pandemic

Despite data mining and demographics, there’s a joy and love in pet ownership that is personal and universal. The benefits our beloved animals bring have proven to be especially valuable during uncomfortable, uneasy times.

Who knew that pets were the perfect accoutrement for a global pandemic?

While many turned to cocktails and binge-watching, it was our pets that did the best job in buffering us from the anxiety and emotional stress many experienced during the lockdown.

96% of respondents in a 2020 U.K. study reported that they stayed active and fit during the lockdown because of their dogs. More than 9 out of 10 surveyed gave credit for being able to cope emotionally to the support they received from their pet.

It feels like people who locked down with an animal over a person seemed to fare better. Just a note for the next pandemic.

Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” - Colette

Loyal and critical companionship

Humans are social beings.

In the absence of – or in exchange for - another person, pets fill an important role.

Most pet owners talk to their pets, though a purr or a wag, wag, wag can be plenty conversation enough. It’s probably the most honest relationship we have.

With our pets we are perfectly ourselves, knowing that we will be loved regardless and that everything will be kept in the strictest confidence. It’s basically at-home therapy by a one-client doctor who loves you.

Companionship period has been linked to illness prevention and increased longevity, where too much solitary time can trigger symptoms of depression. Research has linked having pets – regardless of type – to reduced loneliness, increased feelings of social support, and to maintaining better mental health.

One study compared the impact of dogs on single-person vs. multi-person households. While both showed a reduced all-cause death risk compared to no-dog homes, people living alone benefit the most from owning a dog, with a 33% lower risk of any cause of death (vs. 11% lower for people who shared households).

Pets and the elderly set

In addition to providing essential companionship, older adults especially can benefit from pet ownership. Pets have shown to play a valuable role in healthy aging.

Pets keep you healthy. So much so that people over 65 years old who own pets visit their doctors 30% less than those without pets.

Pets of all kinds encourage playful energy which help to keep you young and boost the immune system. Older dog owners benefit from enforced regular walking routines.

Pets also give our life purpose and joy as we age. Caring for a pet helps people feel wanted and needed, especially when we’re on our own. Animals focus us on the good. They can give us hope, boost our morale and optimism and remind us of our self-worth.

My brave father brought home a pair of kittens at 81. Today he is a widower and we both say it all the time: Thank God for these cats. These furry and purry roommates help to keep him young. It’s everything.

How you behave toward cats here below determines your status in Heaven.”
― Robert A. Heinlein


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