Scientists Discuss How Pets Keep Us Healthy

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Dog and baby.

Many studies show that pets can keep us healthy. According to researchers,"we're just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know about the human-animal bond and its potential health benefits." The comment comes from Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University.


According to Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, The bond between animals and humans is part of our evolution, and it's very powerful." Pet ownership has been steadily increasing, and now two-thirds of households have at least one pet.

Dr. Barker, says, "Researchers have only recently begun to explore this wonderful relationship and what its health benefits might be."

Dr. James Griffin, a scientist at NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development says…"there have been relatively few well-controlled studies" about the health benefits of owning pets. The researchers cite several studies that discuss how pet ownership promotes heart health and reduces stress. Walking the dog promotes exercise and social interaction.

One study funded by the NIH looked at 2000 individual, comparing those who owned dogs to those who did not. They found that dog walkers were less likely to be obese, and regularly got more exercise than their counterparts who do not own or walk their dog regularly. In addition, older people were found to be more active inside the home if they owned a dog.

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In another study, 240 married couples who owned a pet had lower blood pressure and heart rate than couples without pets. They also recovered more quickly from stress when with their pet – even more so than with friends or spouse.

Pets seem to help humans survive heart attacks. Researchers looked at 421 people who had had heart attacks. They found dog owners were more likely to be alive one year later, regardless of heart attack severity.

Other studies clearly show pets promote longevity and mental acuity. Socially active people experience less memory problems with age, and tend to live longer. Dr. Barker says, "It's hard to walk a dog and not have someone talk to you or interact with you, compared to walking alone,"

Pets can provide comfort, especially to children. Dr. Griffin says, "When children are asked who they talk to when they get upset, a lot of times their first answer is their pet. This points to the importance of pets as a source of comfort and developing empathy. In fact, therapists and researchers have reported that children with autism are sometimes better able to interact with pets, and this may help in their interactions with people".

There seems to be no question that pets can contribute to our health. Dogs provide help and therapy in clinical settings and to individuals with handicaps. Dr. Barker says, "This area is primed for a lot of research that still needs to be done."

It seems we can now look forward to more studies about how our furry pet friends keep us healthy.