Benefits of Pets

Part 1: Understanding the Pet Effect

Pet owners enjoy lots of benefits from their pets – ‘the pet effect’

Pet owners enjoy lots of benefits from their pets – ‘the pet effect’

It is probably fair to say that we like to think of ourselves as a nation of ‘animal lovers’. According to the Pet Food Manufacturing Association, in 2014 there were 9 million dogs and 8 million cats kept as pets in The UK. But this is nothing new. We humans have chosen to share our lives and homes with companion animals for millennia; this human affinity and close connection with companion animals is shown across cultures and throughout time. Whilst pet keeping is not a new phenomenon, it may be surprising that it is only relatively recently we have started to learn more about the significant and diverse human health benefits of pets, responsible pet ownership and caring interactions with our pets.

Of course, taking on the responsibility for the life-long care and welfare of any non-human animal is a serious commitment and not something to be rushed into without plenty of research and honest appraisal of personal expectations of owning a pet, as well as considering our life style and whether that is able to accommodate a pet without compromising its welfare.

Acquiring a pet on impulse without due thought and consideration of the considerable commitment involved in its care can have negative consequences to human health (e.g. raising stress levels, relationship breakdown, family conflict) and devastating consequences to animal welfare, such as relinquishment to animal shelters for re-homing, abuse and neglect.

But, when pet-people relationships are established and maintained in a planned, caring and responsible way, these unique relationships can bring about significant psychological, physiological and social benefits for people; this phenomenon has become known as ‘the pet effect’.

Cardiovascular benefits of pets – healthy hearts!

Within the increasingly popular field of anthrozoology (the study of human-animal interactions) there is a growing body of scientific research supporting the benefits of pet ownership for people.

Scientific studies have found that:

  • People with pets are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets
  • People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets
  • Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which help calm and relax us
  • Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets
  • Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without pets
  • Pet owners over the age of 65 make 30% fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets
  • While people with dogs often experience the greatest health benefits, a pet doesn’t necessarily have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rate
Playing with our pets can help to calm and relax us - one of the many benefits of pets

Playing with our pets can help to calm and relax us – one of the many benefits of pets

These claims appear to be pretty significant and initially it might appear confusing as to why and how pets can have this positive influence on our health and wellbeing. We need to look at the basics of the human need for attachment to understand the processes involved. The term attachment refers to a mutual and intense relationship between two individuals. The pet-person relationship can probably best be understood by looking at attachment theory. Attachment as a term is most often used to describe relationships between parent-child (usually mother-child).

There are four characteristics associated with attachment:

  • Proximity seeking, particularly in times of distress
  • Distress at separation (separation anxiety)
  • Pleasure at reunion
  • General orientation towards the primary caregiver

These characteristics are present within our caring relationships with pets. We relate to and with our pets who respond to us. The relationship is mutual, involving reciprocal actions and communication (most of us talk to our pets!). We experience pleasure from playing, being with and sharing our homes and lives with another living being, who responds to us. We look forward to seeing our pets and miss them when we are away at work, or on holiday without them; usually on our return our pets (particularly dogs) greet us enthusiastically – we feel wanted, appreciated, valued, needed and loved.

Significantly, one of the reasons for the therapeutic effects of this relationship for people is that most pets fulfill the basic human attachment need for proximity and touch. Stroking, holding, cuddling, or otherwise touching a loving companion animal can rapidly calm and soothe us when we’re stressed. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and some pets are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost mood.

So now we understand that pet-people relationships can provide us with the qualities of human attachment needs, in the next article let’s take a closer look at the evidence.