Studies show that when kids have pets, they benefit emotionally and physically (especially little boys). But it’s not just children whose well-being is enhanced by the presence of a furry family friend. Research backs up our instinct that the presence of a pet — with their cavorting that cracks you up, their unconditional love, and your responsibility in caring for them — has a measurable positive effect on people of all ages.
According to the most recent statistics from the Humane Society of the United States, 83.3 million Americans own dogs and 95.6 million of us make our homes with cats.
Here are four ways your pet companions can boost your physical and mental health:
1. Pet owners have healthier hearts
According to the American Heart Association, pet owners, particularly dog owners, have a lower risk of heart disease. This may be for the obvious reason: Someone’s gotta walk Fido, and that person is getting a fair amount of heart-healthy exercise. In fact, older people are more likely to take regular walks if their strolling companion is canine rather than human. Other studies have shown that just petting an animal can reduce blood pressure, and pet owners often have lower cholesterol levels as well, both of which support cardiovascular health. As much as you can, don’t just let your dog out in the yard alone. Grab that leash and you’ll have your best exercise buddy.
2. Pet owners are emotionally healthier
In a series of studies at the universities of Miami and St. Louis, researchers found that when pets helped fulfill social needs, their owners experienced an increased sense of belonging and meaningful existence. Just picture it: When dogs stop to sniff and mingle while on walks or are romping around in a dog park, their owners naturally chat and potentially make new friends. And what pet owners haven’t bonded over cute photos and videos shared on Facebook? Pet owners were also more likely to care about and get involved in their communities. The more attached we are to our pets, the more compassionate we are with, well, everyone.
3. Pet owners are happier
Friends with benefits? You bet! Studies have shown that just thinking about one’s pets makes owners feel better — less lonely, less fearful, more self-confident. It may be the responsibility of caring for your animal, or the unconditional love you get from them (dogs, in particular), but pet owners tend to have greater self-esteem, be more extroverted, and be more emotionally stable than those who don’t have pets, according to a 2011 study reported by the American Psychological Association.
4. Pet-owning families have healthier kids
Babies born into families with dogs have fewer respiratory and ear infections in the first year of life than their pet-free counterparts, according to a 2012 study published in Pediatrics. And as with adults, having a pet makes a child more likely to be physically active. But there are also distinct social benefits for kids, as pets often serve as a way for shy children to make friends. Helping to care for a pet also fosters emotional development and security.
Today is National Pet Day, so if you have a cat or dog or another type of little friend, give them an extra cuddle. If you’re thinking about adopting a pet, make sure to put some time and thought into what type of animal is most suited for your family or situation. If owning a pet isn’t an option at the moment — maybe your landlord doesn’t allow them or you’re on the road a lot for work — think about volunteering at your nearby animal shelter. You’ll still get the health benefits and be able to offer some rescues a whole lot of love.