The love that we feel for our pets is beyond words. There’s no denying that being around our furry friends brings joy into our lives, but did you know that there are a variety of physical and mental health benefits associated with having a pet?
Since dogs were first domesticated, humans have been reaping the benefits of having pets as companions. And while the science in this area is still new, a multitude of studies have shown that there are scientific benefits of having a furry friend at your side, such as improved stress levels, a lower risk of heart disease, and improved mental health. This proves what humans have known intuitively throughout history: having pets just makes life better.
Let’s take a deep dive into the history of these companions and explore the ways that having a pet can benefit your mind and body to help you live a more holistic life.
The History of Pet Ownership.
Humans have cared for animals since time immemorial, but the history surrounding pets is still a bit hazy. Ancient humans kept animals for a number of reasons and because they played a variety of roles in ancient life, it can be tough to figure out when exactly humans began to have pets purely for pleasure rather than as work animals or food sources.
We do know that dogs were the very first pet to be domesticated, with some evidence showing domestication in Siberia around 23,000 years ago (1), but it’s unclear whether or not they were being kept as pets during these early years. Around 12,000 years ago, humans began to be buried with their furry friends, and while archaeologists aren’t sure exactly why, it’s clear that these ancient dogs were important to the people that took care of them.
In the Middle Ages, wealthy nobles began to keep their own pets, and as it became more socially acceptable, there was a rise in people keeping pets that started in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that extends to today. We can thank the Victorians for our current view of pets–in Victorian times, having a pet was a way for nobility to link themselves more closely to the natural world, and that viewpoint slowly spread to the lower classes.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the formation of the middle-class allowed more people to have pets, and today, having a pet is seen as part and parcel of life.
Mental and Physical Health Benefits of Owning Pets:
While pets have only come into fashion within the last few centuries, it’s always been obvious that humans derive joy from caring for animals. There’s a good reason for this, too–having a pet can provide you with a variety of mental and physical health benefits that you might not even know about, such as:
Boosting Oxytocin and Lower Stress Levels.
One study showed (2) that when owners and dogs interact with one another in specific ways, these interactions can stimulate oxytocin levels and lower cortisol levels. Oxytocin, otherwise known as the “love hormone”, is a chemical in our brains that can stimulate feelings of love and affection. Cortisol, on the other hand, is a key stress hormone–the higher our levels of cortisol, the more stress we feel. So if you want to induce feelings of love and lower your stress levels, interacting with your pet is a good way to start.
Lowering Your Risk of Cardiovascular Disease.
A review (3) conducted by the American Heart Association in 2013 revealed that there is a connection between pet ownership and a reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease. Specifically, the study suggests that owning a dog is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, which could be attributed to the increased physical activity levels of dog owners who frequently engage in activities like walking and playing with their dogs.
Improving Your Mental Health.
One recent study (4) on pet owners during the COVID-19 lockdowns suggested that having a pet can have positive mental health benefits, including “significantly better coping self-efficacy, significantly more positive emotions, and better psychological wellbeing”. Pets can also help you feel less lonely–a 2013 study (5) showed that, among older individuals living alone, owning a pet can provide “benefits for well-being, including attenuating feelings of loneliness”.
A Pet For a More Holistic Life.
There’s no doubt that having a pet is a joy, and it can confer a number of health benefits that will help you live a more well-rounded, holistic life. But while we highly recommend getting a pet to anyone who has the capacity for it, adopting an animal can be a big time and energy commitment.
Animals bring us comfort, protect us, and can even save our lives, but we discourage anyone from buying animals from unethical breeders or operations like puppy mills. Instead, we encourage the adoption of animals in need from shelters and rescue centers. A pet is for life, through thick and thin, and that’s why people should think carefully before they decide to bring a pet home.
There are plenty of dogs, cats, and other animals out there who need a loving place to call their own. If you have the means to care for them, it might be time for you to reap the positive benefits of having a pet and experience lower stress, a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, and improved mental health.
(2) Petersson M, Uvnäs-Moberg K, Nilsson A, Gustafson LL, Hydbring-Sandberg E, Handlin L. Oxytocin and Cortisol Levels in Dog Owners and Their Dogs Are Associated with Behavioral Patterns: An Exploratory Study. Front Psychol. 2017 Oct 13;8:1796. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01796. PMID: 29081760; PMCID: PMC5645535.
(3) https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1 [can’t find a way to cite this one]
(4) Grajfoner D, Ke GN, Wong RMM. The Effect of Pets on Human Mental Health and Wellbeing during COVID-19 Lockdown in Malaysia. Animals (Basel). 2021 Sep 14;11(9):2689. doi: 10.3390/ani11092689. PMID: 34573655; PMCID: PMC8470955.
(5) Stanley IH, Conwell Y, Bowen C, Van Orden KA. Pet ownership may attenuate loneliness among older adult primary care patients who live alone. Aging Ment Health. 2014;18(3):394-9. doi: 10.1080/13607863.2013.837147. Epub 2013 Sep 18. PMID: 24047314; PMCID: PMC3944143.