The spring after my husband and I got married, we brought home our first baby, our German Shepherd Malachi. We became parents to this nine-pound fuzzy bundle of energy and one among 56 percent of households who own pets.
Why is it we are so connected to our pets? I have friends who speak of their “fur babies” with as much affection as parents talking about their human babies. Social media accounts are often devoted to our beloved companions, with videos of cat antics often going viral.
Pets can provide a number of benefits to their human companions, both physically and psychologically. A growing body of research describes the positive effects of having pets in our lives.
As we lavish love and affection on our pets, we should also remember to prioritize their health and well-being. When we are aware of the positives and negatives of our relationships with our pets, we can enjoy a mutually fulfilling bond that lasts for many years.
1. Our connections to our pets can help heal our bodies.
In a statement published in the journal Circulation, the American Heart Association stated that owning a pet might be associated with a lower risk of heart disease. The exact nature of the link between heart disease and pet ownership is unclear. However, studies have shown that dog owners engage in more physical activity than non-dog owners. Pets can help improve cardiac health, help reduce symptoms related to cardiac disease, and help reduce stress. Dogs, who require regular physical activity, have been shown to reduce sedentary lifestyle habits in their owners.
2. Our connections to our pets can help heal our emotions.
Our pets can be an additional source of support when we are struggling with emotional problems. They are living creatures with whom we can have deep, meaningful relationships even at times when we feel disconnected from other people.
A recent study on treatment-resistant depression examined the effect of pet ownership on symptoms of depression. The study compared 33 depressed participants who accepted a suggestion to adopt a pet with 33 depressed participants who did not. At follow-up, those who adopted pets scored better on measures of depression and had higher rates of response to treatment and remission than non-pet owners.
3. Our connections to our pets can connect us to each other.
One way we connect to one another is through shared interests. When you walk your dog, who do you see? Maybe a friend or perhaps a new neighbor. Even something as routine as a daily dog walk can create an opportunity for meeting another fellow dog lover. Dog parks are a place for dogs and their owners alike to make a new friend. Wherever it happens, dogs are a strong motivation for getting out of the house.
A 2015 study analyzed residents in four cities who were surveyed by phone. Participants were asked about their pet ownership status and getting to know other people in their neighborhood. Pet owners were more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners.
Given the increasing reports of social isolation and the negative effects of loneliness on mental and physical health, socialization through pet ownership might be an important way of increasing social interaction.
4. Our pets’ health and happiness should be a priority, too.
As much as we love our pets, remember, they are not furry humans. Most of us have the best intentions when caring for our pets. However, some of the practices that are beneficial to humans may be inappropriate or harmful to our pets. Thus, it's critical to recognize ways in which your relationships with your pets, while serving your needs, might not be in their best interest.
In his article, The "Humanization of Pet Food," Roger Clemens discusses how it can be harmful to assume that animals have the same nutrition-related health issues that people do. While it is important that we feed our animals a healthy balanced diet, we should not be too quick to jump to meeting their nutritional needs the same way we meet our own.
Our pets often face health challenges that leave us with difficult decisions to make. Like humans, animals can develop both chronic diseases such as diabetes and terminal illnesses such as cancer. Our challenge is in recognizing the boundary between our own needs and our beloved companions’ needs, particularly in making decisions regarding their health.
Often, these decisions deal with a number of issues such as pain management, disability, and end of life choices. As responsible pet owners, it is our duty to make decisions that are humane and in the best interest of our pets. Making these decisions can be confusing, so talk to your vet as well as friends and family to help you understand your pet’s needs while recognizing your own emotional needs.
Your relationship with your pet can be one of the most important relationships in your life. That connection can lead to a longer and happier life—for both you and your pet.
Pereira, JM & Fonte, D,. (2018) Pets enhance antidepressant pharmacotherapy effects in patients with treatment resistant major depressive disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research.
Wood, L & Martin, K et al. The Pet Factor-Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. (2015). PLOS One.
Clemens, Roger. The 'Humanization of Pet Food'. (2014). foodtechnology.