What makes life with your dog or cat so great? You might say it’s the unconditional love, the fact they’re always glad to see you, the hilarious antics. Turns out living with pets comes with an impressive list of benefits to our mental health and overall wellness. You already knew at the gut level that pets provide emotional benefits, but it’s nice to know the human-animal bond does a great deal of good for our bodies and minds.
Cats and dogs make us feel less stressed
Feeling tense, agitated and stressed out? You may not know it, but that little furry face pleading for attention may hold the cure for your bad mood. Numerous studies show that interacting with our dog or cat lowers our blood pressure, lessens our stress and makes us feel better overall.
In a recent small study, a group of (presumably) stressed-out college students spent 10 minutes with dogs and cats at the animal shelter — petting, playing and just hanging out. Compared to the control groups that didn’t get to pet any dogs and cats, the students showed significantly lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in their saliva after interacting with the animals. If they woke up that morning feeling super stressed, with the high cortisone levels to prove it, getting some cat snuggles in still made a difference.
In addition to that, numerous studies, including this one from 1988, show the simple act of petting a dog immediately lowers one’s blood pressure, while other studies show those who live with dogs have lower blood pressure overall. (Because exercise has an effect on blood pressure, getting out for daily walks probably has something to do with that!)
Other studies show that petting your dog releases feel-good brain chemicals of serotonin and dopamine, and another shows that people with pets need less pain medication after surgery.
To learn more about connecting with your dog, listen to episode 34 of the podcast Raising Your Paws: How Gazing into One Another’s Eyes is Good Chemistry for You and Your Dog. (Scroll down for episode notes and to listen.)
All that love adds up to a lot of wellness. If your furry friends knew that, they’d probably demand more ear scratches and tummy rubs. Because, you know, it’s for your own good!
Pets help us stick to a routine
Living with pets means meeting their daily needs, by giving them food and water, cleaning up after them and making sure they get enough activity and attention. As anyone who has lived with pets knows, pets thrive on routine. If you’ve ever tried sleeping in, they’ll be the first at your bedside, nudging you to rise and shine, so you can fill that bowl with food. The daily acts of care we perform for our pets aren’t just good for them, they hold human health benefits. From these routines, we derive meaning in our lives, get a sense of security and feel a sense of control. When times are tough, something as small as caring for a pet can really help, according to mental health experts.
Dogs get us outdoors and moving
As a dog owner, you probably get outside more than you would otherwise, since dogs love their walks and trips to the dog park, and it’s good for their physical health. Though you may be going out for the sake of the dog, you’re also reaping some of the benefits.
According to the Mayo Clinic, getting 30 minutes of physical activity per day is part of a healthy lifestyle; living with dogs just makes it easier to fit this into our busy days. (If you’re short on time, you can break up the 30 minutes into two or three shorter sessions, and still get the same benefits.) Walking for exercise is heart-healthy, and not just because it gets your ticker pumping. Daily walks reduce stroke risk in both men and women, plus people who walk regularly have lower blood pressure, less body fat and lower cholesterol.
Leashing up and getting out also helps mind and mood, because regular exercise, walking included, makes us less anxious and depressed. The research suggests staying out longer is even better. So when you have a free afternoon, take your best friend to your favorite nature trail for a nice long hike. Because according to this study, taking long walks in natural settings, 90 minutes or more, reduces our tendency to ruminate on negative experiences.
Dogs and cats help us connect with people
When you’re outside walking your dog, people can’t help but smile at her adorable furry face! Most people don’t feel comfortable drumming up a conversation with strangers in the park, or even the new neighbors that moved in down the street. Just add a dog and those awkward first moments disappear. It feels natural to approach an eager dog, and then meet the human by their side.
Even cats can make us more connected. All those funny cat memes, videos and Instagram posts have given people an outlet to bond online.
Haven’t heard from a friend in a while? Texting a cute photo of your pet can break the ice.
Not all pet-driven encounters, in person or online, spark a friendship. But pets offer an easy, effortless way to add human connection into our day. So go ahead, let your pet be a springboard.
Pets can teach us to be more present
The concept of mindfulness has been getting a lot of attention lately, because most of us feel we can do better at being focused and aware as we go about our daily lives. Instead, we worry about the future, replay that conversation with our boss that makes us cringe, get distracted by notifications on our phones. But our furry friends? There’s nothing but the present moment. Just watch them go about their lives. When you fill the dinner bowl, shake the treat box or come home from work, nothing gets in the way of those joyful full-body wiggles and contented purrs. True, dog and cat brains aren’t wired to contemplate the past and future. Let them remind you of the gift of being present. With practice, you might see a difference in your ability to handle tough days.
Diet for a long, happy life
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