Most pet owners are well aware that pets make our lives better, but they can also help improve our health. Research continues to identify many ways pets help improve our health, including helping maintain mental health and well-being. More than two-thirds of us, about 68% of U.S. households, have a pet.
In addition to providing loyal companionship, pets may also decrease stress, improve heart health, decrease loneliness, boost mood and help children with their emotional and social skills, according to the National Institutes of Health. Having a pet can help you get more exercise, maintain structure and routine, focus on living in the moment, and meet new people.
Some research has found that dogs can help children with ADHD focus their attention and improve social skills and cooperation. In one study, children with autism were calmer, less anxious and more engaged with their peers when playing with guinea pigs for just 10 minutes. Many different kinds of pets, not just dogs and cats, can have benefits, for example, watching fish in an aquarium can help people relax and lower pulse rate.
A study published in early 2020 looked at the effects of dog and cat ownership on adolescents’ well-being. The study involved more than 3,000 adolescents, followed over a two-year period. After adjusting for socio-demographic and other factors, researchers found dog ownership more beneficial for maintaining well-being among adolescents compared with cat ownership or no pet ownership. Dog ownership at age 10 was associated with increased well-being at age 12 compared to no dog ownership. The authors conclude that “dog and cat ownership may have different effects on adolescents’ mental well-being, implying that the underlying mechanisms that are activated by these types of ownership may differ.”
There is also some evidence of mutual well-being benefit between dogs and humans. A recent study found that human–dog interaction, specifically dogs’ human-like gazing behavior, increased oxytocin in the dogs’ owner. Oxytocin plays a role in stress regulation and promoting positive social behavior. The interaction also led to an increase in oxytocin concentration in the dogs.
Another study, published in 2019, found that bringing a dog into the family has a “relatively rapid, positive impact” on mental well-being. Researchers in Australia conducted a 8-month controlled study involving three groups of urban residents: a group who acquired a dog within a month of the start of the study; a group who delayed acquiring a dog until after the study; and a group with no plans to acquire a dog. Acquiring a dog was associated with a reduced loneliness within three months and the benefits continued through the end of the study.
Research continues to pinpoint more health and well-being benefits of pets in our lives, in addition to the companionship and joy they can bring every day.
Endo K. et al. Dog and Cat Ownership Predicts Adolescents' Mental Well-Being: A Population-Based Longitudinal Study. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Jan 31;17(3). pii: E884. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17030884.
Powell, L. et al. Companion dog acquisition and mental well-being: a community-based three-arm controlled study. BMC Public Health. 2019 Nov 5;19(1):1428. doi: 10.1186/s12889-019-7770-5.
Nagasawa M, et al. Social evolution. Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds. Science. 2015 Apr 17;348(6232):333-6. doi: 10.1126/science.1261022.