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The health benefits of owning a pet

4 minute read
A dog licking his owner's face

Australians sure do love their pets! A huge 3.6 million Aussie homes have a dog, and 2.9 million have a cat. From lower levels of anxiety to increased physical activity benefits, you might be interested to know that there’s a raft of health benefits of having a pet.

“Pet ownership has an enormous number of benefits – they are the ‘superfood’ of lifestyle choices!” says vet Dr James Carroll. “Numerous studies have shown the benefits of pets on general health, life expectancy, immune function and physical health – all are significantly better in people who own pets.”

The health-boosting benefits of pets aren’t just limited to the physical either. There’s plenty of research to show a positive connection with pets and mental health too. “The social and psychological benefits of adding a furry member to your family are truly amazing,” says James.

How do pets help you make lifestyle changes?

Whether you’re a devoted dog person, crazy for cats, big on birds or feel that fish are friends (not food!), here are some of the many lifestyle changes you may experience if you own a pet.

1. Increased exercise

Physical benefits of dog ownership, in particular, are often explained by the increased exercise that comes with it, says James. After all, pups need daily exercise as much as we do! Regular walks with your pet can improve cardiovascular fitness, lower blood pressure and help build stronger muscles and bones.

2. A boosted mood

Increased physical activity benefits not only your physical health but also your mental wellbeing, and this is just one of the ways that dogs and mental health go hand-in-hand. Getting out into nature can help boost your mood – and what better reason to get outside each day than taking the dog for a stroll or a play in the local park?

3. Reduced stress levels

Stroking and patting pets can reduce the feelings and physiological indicators of stress, such as high blood pressure.

A cat fist bumping it's owner

4. Community and connection

Dogs also increase our opportunities for social interaction, helping us feel connected to other people and decreasing feelings of loneliness. Research suggests that pet owners (in particular those with dogs) are more likely to meet other people around the neighbourhood and greet others, and people who walk their dogs are seen as friendly and approachable.

5. Better mental wellbeing

Research even suggests that dogs can help with depression, as do other pets, by providing their owners with a sense of purpose and responsibility. Man’s best friend can also help with anxiety, with one study showing that people who interacted with a dog experienced lower levels of anxiety and a better mood overall.

Dogs aren’t the only animals to provide mental health benefits, though – a study of patients in a dentist’s waiting area found that watching fish swim in an aquarium is as effective at reducing stress as hypnosis!

How does owning a pet help your child?

Pet ownership also has fantastic benefits for children, not only physically but also psychologically and socially (much like the effects pets have on adults!). Children who have a dog are 40% less likely to be overweight and obese, and kids who grow up around pets may be less likely to suffer from allergies and have stronger immune systems.

Kids with pets also report higher self-esteem and optimism than those without furry, feathered or fishy family members, as well as less boredom, loneliness and despair.

“Children who have pets have better social interactions and develop empathy more readily,” adds James. “Self-esteem and physical health are also improved in children who have pets.”

And at the other end of the spectrum, he adds, “cognitive capabilities and social interactions are improved dramatically in the elderly [with pet ownership]”. No matter your age, it seems owning a pet can improve your life significantly.

“The benefits of pet ownership are innumerable, but the feeling of unconditional love, understanding and companionship that they provide is unmatched,” says James.

Looking for other ways to boost your mood and mental wellbeing? From tips for a better night’s sleep to 10 foods that can help boost your mood, we’ve got more expert advice at The Check Up’s dedicated mental health section.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Dr James Carroll

Animals might not be able to speak to us, but that hasn’t stopped vet Dr James Carroll from developing a strong ability to understand what they need. Helping owners understand what their pet needs is what James is passionate about. He has worked in all aspects of the veterinary industry with all types of animals, and currently holds a senior management role in a specialist and emergency hospital. James was the star of Foxtel’s Village Vets Australia, has written two best-selling books and cannot start the day without a flat white.

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