Do Pets Keep People Healthy?

"Zooeiya" describes the positive benefits of human-animal interactions.

Posted Jan 13, 2020

"Zooeiya" is the term that describes the positive benefits to the health of people as a result of interacting with animals, and the primary focus of zooeyia studies is the ways that pets improve the health of their people. This post discusses the ways in which pets help keep us healthy and happy.   

Photo by Adam Griffith on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Adam Griffith on Unsplash

Zoonosis and Zooeiya

Zoonosis is a term that may be unfamiliar to some, but the concept is well known. It is the term to describe the ways that humans can get sick from their interactions with animals, such as contracting hoof and mouth disease from sick cattle. Previous research focused on controlling zoonosis, preventing people from getting sick from animals, or preventing animals from getting sick from people. These are the articles you may have read that proclaim that you shouldn't let your dog kiss you or sleep on your bed because it is detrimental to your health. 

However, new research shows that these articles may have it all backward! The benefits of spending time with animals far outweigh any potential health risks, and spending time with animals may actually make us healthier. 

Oxytocin, the hormone that bonds mothers to their children and romantic partners to each other, also increases in both humans and animals when they interact. Oxytocin controls key aspects of human behavior, such as increasing a sense of well-being and reducing depression, anxiety, and feelings of stress. It is this interaction effect, the positive influence on the health of both people and animals, that has inspired policy changes such as the One Health Movement.

One Health Movement

A worldwide initiative, One Health, suggests that human health problems should be considered within the context of a person's relationship to their pets. Animal companionship may cause a person to recover faster from surgery, prevent social isolation, increase community engagement, and may even be a catalyst for making positive health changes (such as quitting smoking or exercising more). Research shows that pets can cause people to be more physically active (the dog must go for his walk!), help lower cortisol levels caused by stress due to chronic illnesses or anxiety, and even help prevent dementia. There is even research which shows that living with a cat helps improve cardiovascular function! 

Attachment to an animal may be the primary reason that a person seeks medical help (I want to get better to take care of my dog). Ultimately, the One Health movement suggests that to optimize the health of both people and their pets, veterinarians and primary care physicians should be located in the same facility. It's possible that people will be more likely to seek out preventative care for themselves if they are aware of how their own health impacts their pets, and vice versa.

It is also possible that pet guardianship may someday be considered a medical intervention prescribed by doctors as a preventative measure before more invasive procedures are attempted. In this regard, Zooeiya researchers suggest that the human-animal bond should be considered by medical professionals when assessing a patient's healing factors. Some people may not consider attending to their own health needs for fear of being unable to care for their pets during or after surgery or chronic illness. But if pet guardianship is considered a vital part of the recovery process, then medical doctors and veterinarians can provide interventions that help all parties involved. 

Photo by Jeffrey Buchbinder on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Jeffrey Buchbinder on Unsplash

Future Goals

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has long been invested in studies of the positive health benefits as a result of animal interactions. Economically, if having a pet can make us healthy, it can potentially save our country millions of dollars in health care costs. And who wouldn't prefer a furry friend licking your face or purring in your lap to a visit to the hospital? 

Zooeiya and the One Health movement are encouraging both veterinarians and human doctors to consider the ways that pets can improve our physical and psychological health to help us live happier and longer lives. Are pets, then, a possible fountain of youth? Since this is still a burgeoning field, more research must be done to give us definitive answers. 

Currently, large-scale, longitudinal studies of children are underway to see exactly what are the positive benefits of animals on human health and child development. Veterinarians already consider the human-animal bond when assessing the health of their furry patients, but perhaps it's time that medical doctors start thinking about the human-animal bond, too.  

References

Hodgson, K., & Darling, M. (2011). Zooeyia: an essential component of “One Health”. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 52(2), 189.