6 health benefits of owning a pet

Can a fluffy companion really benefit your health?

Lovely and cute woman spending her leisure time at the park with her Bernard dog.

Owning a pet is one of life’s greatest joys. According to the National Pet Owners Survey, 67% of U.S. households have at least one pet. Being greeted by an excited animal when you walk through the door is an incredible feeling. It’s no wonder people love their pets so much. The bond between pets and people has also been shown to have myriad mental and physical health benefits, as well as increase your quality of life.

There are few better places to have a pet than California. Whether you’re letting your pup run free at Griffith Park Dog Park in Los Angeles, taking him on a hike on Big Rock Trail in Marin, or grabbing lunch with Fido at The Patio on Lamont Street in San Diego, California is the perfect state for pets and their humans to thrive. Not convinced that having a pet is all that people make it out to be? Here are some of the top benefits of having a pet:

  • Helps you reduce stress. The rhythmic act of petting your dog or cat helps you to calm down and reduce your stress levels. Oxytocin, the hormone related to stress and anxiety relief, is released to the brain when you connect with your pet. This also helps to reduce blood pressure and lower cortisol levels. This is soothing for your pet, as well, so it’s a win-win. A 2018 study found that spending time with therapy dogs had immediate benefits and reduced the stress of pre-exam college students. 
  • Increases your fitness level.  A study published in BMC Public Health in 2017 found that dog owners walk 22 minutes more per day on average than people who don’t own a dog. Additionally, being active with your dog outdoors will also help you soak up vitamin D, which plays a critical role in fighting infections, cancer, obesity, and heart attacks. In general, pet owners tend to have have better circulation and a lower risk of experiencing cardiac issues. 
  • Makes you feel less lonely.  A 2018 study found that half of Americans feel lonely. This may be partially due to the increased digital connection we have on social media networks. While nothing beats human interaction, getting a pet can help with loneliness. The feeling of loneliness has been linked to a range of negative physical and mental outcomes, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. This is especially true in older adults. Senior adults who live alone with a pet are less likely to feel lonely than those who don't own a pet. 
  • Helps you be more social.  Pet owners are more likely than non–pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhood. “If I saw you walking down the street, I couldn’t comfortably start talking to you if I didn’t know you, but I could if you had a dog,” says Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. “It’s an acceptable interaction that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.” There are also many social activities to engage in with your pet, especially dogs. Dog parks get you out of the house to a place where you have at least one thing in common with everyone there: You all love dogs. A 2015 study found that other pets like cats, rabbits, and snakes can also foster friendships and social support.
  • Makes you feel like you have a purpose.  Having to take care of a pet can give you a sense of purpose. Even if you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, you have to make sure your pet is fed. By caring for your pet, you can take time to focus on someone other than yourself, which can help if you have depression. Seeing your pet happy and cared for will give you a sense of gratification. Pet owners with mental health issues find a sense of purpose through their pet; pets are able to provide unique emotional support. If you suffer depression, and you need additional help and resources while you take care of your pet, follow up with your mental health provider. Blue Shield members can download the app to access doctors’ contact info, as well as other mental health resources. 
  • Alleviates allergies and boosts immune function.  While many people are allergic to the dander from dogs or cats, a 2017 study from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that being exposed to cats in the first year of your life decreases the risk for asthma, pneumonia, and bronchitis. If you have an infant, a cat may be the perfect companion to bring home with your baby. A 2015 study published by the Royal Society also suggests there may be a link between microbes that pets bring into our home and the beneficial ones that live in our digestive tract. “Exposure to animal bacteria may trigger bacteria in our gut to change how they metabolize the neurotransmitters that have an impact on mood and other mental functions,” Jack Gilbert, the director of the Microbiome Center at the University of Chicago, told the New York Times.

The constant sunshine and endless options for playing in nature make California one of the best states to have a pet – especially a dog. Not only will adopting from a shelter help the animal, it will help you, too. Just be sure that you can commit to the responsibility of having a pet before you adopt; pets are for life.

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