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Animal Behavior

Are Pets Good for Our Brain Health?

Owning a pet may reduce brain aging by up to 15 years.

Key points

  • Owning a pet may be good for our body and brain health.
  • Dog ownership may have protective effects against the onset of dementia.
  • Cat owners may have fewer psychiatric disturbances.

Being an animal lover and a pet owner, pets have been good for me. They help us live a healthier life. They gently wake us up to remind us that it’s time for breakfast or that we need playtime. They are always so happy to see us when we are home after a long day. They provide nonjudgmental companionship, unconditional love and support, reduce stress and anxiety, boost mood, and help keep us physically fitter. All these factors also tend to improve cognition because mental health directly affects brain functioning.

Source: Barbara Koltuska-Haskin
The heartwarming picture of our kitty, Princess, napping with her favorite toy.
Source: Barbara Koltuska-Haskin

Research studies indicate the supportive role of animals during the treatment of many diseases such as cardiovascular, cancer, fibromyalgia, autism, and dementia. Animal-assisted therapy is also frequently used in mental health treatment such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other conditions.

Being a neuropsychologist, I was curious to find out if there are any studies on the effects of pets on the human brain. I was surprised that there are, and the results are interesting. A 2022 study by Jennifer Applebaum and colleagues examined the association between sustained pet ownership and cognitive performance among older adults. The subjects were adults aged 65 and older, who owned a pet for more than five years, less than five years, and non-pet owners.

The results indicated that study subjects who owned pets for more than five years had better short-term and delayed word recall scores than non-owners. I concluded that for me, talking to my pet has been a good brain exercise.

The Alabama study, (McDonugh, J., and colleagues, 2022) examined the effect of pet ownership on cognition and brain health. The Alabama brain study on the risk of dementia included 95 adult subjects aged 20 to 74; 56 subjects were pet owners and 39 were not. The subjects completed the neuropsychological evaluation and an MRI session.

The results indicated that pet ownership was related to a higher level of cognition (better processing speed, attentional orientation, and memory for stories) and larger brain structures (dorsal attention, limbic system, and default mode network). These effects were largest for dog owners and older adults having more than one pet. Researchers also concluded that pet ownership can reduce brain age by up to 15 years.

The newest study out of Japan (Toniquchi, Y., and colleagues, 2023) examined the effect of dog and cat ownership on the onset of dementia in an older community in Japan. This was a large study of 11, 194 older adults. The results indicated that owning a dog had a suppressive effect on incidents of dementia, especially if the dog owner had an exercise habit and no social isolation. Cat ownership did not show protective factors in this study. However, researchers in Australia (Straede, C., Gates, R., 1993) found that cat owners may have fewer psychiatric disturbances and generally more favorable attitudes toward pets.

In conclusion, the research indicates that generally pets are good for our body and brain health. If you can and have the means, visit your neighborhood animal shelter to find your “best friend.” It will help you live a healthier life.


Applebaum, J. et al. “The Impact of Sustained Ownership of a pet on Cognitive Health. A Population-Based Study.” Journal of Aging and Health. August 25, 2022.

McDonugh,J. et al. “Pet ownership is associated with greater cognitive and brain health in a cross-sectional sample across the adult lifespan.” Front. Aging Neurosci. 20 October 2022.

Toniquchi, Y. et al.”Protective effects of dog ownership against the onset of disabling dementia in older community-dwelling Japanese: A longitudinal study.” Preventive Medicine Reports, Vol. 36, December 2023.

Straede, Ch. & Gates, R. “Psychological Health in a Population of Australian Cat Owners.” Anthrozoos, A Multidisciplinary journal of the interaction between people and other animals. Vol. 6, Issue 1, 1993

Allen, al. “Pet ownership, but not ace inhibitor therapy, blunts home blood pressure responses to mental health.” Hypertension, Oct. 38(4), 2001.

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