The Data-Backed Case for Pets: How Animals Are Good for Everyone’s Health and Happiness

What if someone told you the secret to living a healthier and happier life is sharing your home with a pet? Would you believe them or wonder if they’ve spent too long in pandemic isolation?

As it turns out, there’s truth to the fur-loving fanaticism: pet ownership “paws-itively” correlates to better physical and mental health. While it’s true that owning a pet is a huge responsibility and a decision that shouldn’t be made lightly, it’s also true that those who share their homes and hearts with pets live healthier and happier lives.

Pet ownership is a common part of American life. A survey from 2019-2020 by the American Pet Products Association (APPA) showed that 67 percent of American households own a pet. Those numbers include non-furry animals such as birds, reptiles, and fish according to data from Research and Markets, the world’s largest market research store.

By far, cats and dogs represent the majority of types of pets in American households. Research and Markets predicts that cats and dogs will represent the lion’s share of pet ownership in the coming years, showing that only 14 percent of those surveyed in January 2019 and March 2020 owned a pet that was not a cat or a dog.

No matter if your pet is furry, feathered, leathery, or finned, it’s clear to see that the majority of American pet owners consider their companions as family. The 2017-2018 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Sourcebook shows that the love is deep: 80 percent of pet owners consider their pets as family members and 17 percent consider their pets to be companions.

The math is simple: pet owners live healthier and happier and millions of pets need homes. Whether you adopt, foster, or volunteer at a local animal shelter, statistics show investments of time and energy with pets pays out well in long-term health and happiness benefits.

Read on to learn more about how owning a pet can provide companionship and opportunities to create healthier habits.

Shelter-in-Place With a Shelter-Adopted Pet

Whether it’s for companionship, better health, or simply smiling more, pets can help combat the ill-effects of social isolation brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. The word “unprecedented” has been widely used to describe the global devastation experienced in 2020, but there’s also a silver lining: several US animal shelters have emptied in response to humans sheltering in place. While this is a remarkable first-time event, a staggering number of pets still need homes.

The Humane Society of the United States shows that of the three million cats and dogs euthanized in shelters each year, approximately 2.4 million or 80 percent are healthy and treatable and ready to be adopted.

For this reason, prospective pet owners are urged to “adopt, not shop” for their furry family companions. As well, fostering is a short-term option for those who can’t commit to long-term pet ownership and want to be of service to animal shelters and share their homes with a pet in need.

How Do Pets Improve Physical Health?

Skip the fad diets and stuffy gyms: owning a pet gets you outside for regular exercise for free. The benefits of regular exercise are well-documented and walking with your dog or playing indoors with your cat helps lead to the following, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Decreased cholesterol levels
  • Decreased triglyceride levels

Getting regular physical exercise not only feels good, but it’s also a proactive way to prevent the leading causes of preventable death in the United States: obesity, heart disease, type-2 diabetes, and certain kinds of cancer (CDC 2020).

Walking a dog every day could have the unexpected side effect of decreasing or eliminating the need for medications that lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin resistance. A study from the British Journal of Pharmacology states that regular cardiovascular exercise such as walking is considered a treatment for common chronic neurological and metabolic disorders including type-2 diabetes, obesity, bone and joint diseases (arthritis, fibromyalgia, and osteoporosis), and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Furthermore, adults and children living with autism are also known to benefit from the physical presence of an animal they share a deep bond with. According to research conducted in animal-assisted therapy at UCLA, children were able to be more verbally communicative and increase social interaction in therapy sessions that incorporated animals.

Just as auto insurance companies assess a driver’s risk based on statistics, so too can owning a pet increase one’s chances of living a physically healthier lifestyle through regular exercise. And while regular exercise clearly has a wealth of physical benefits, walking or running a dog every day also comes with many mental health benefits.

How Do Pets Improve Mental Health?

While the pathway to improved health starts in the physical body, the residual effects of regular exercise and animal companionship also provide numerous benefits for mental health. At a time when anxiety levels are at an all-time high, those struggling to cope with stress and isolation should know that owning or interacting with a pet provides many mental health benefits.

Just as exercise reduces stress hormones in the body, petting animals also provides relaxation. UCLA researchers in animal-assisted therapy show that the action of petting animals such as dogs or cats releases three mood-elevating hormones at all once: serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin. The release of these hormones is known to lower anxiety levels, provide comfort, and reduce loneliness.

Since mental and physical health are interconnected, for some managing stress begins in the mind so as to prevent it from manifesting in the body. Researchers at Harvard Medical School show there’s validity in controlling the ill-effects of stress from the inside out. They recommend using techniques that will relax the body and send calming signals from the brain to the body through deep breathing and talk therapy.

And while a cat or a dog is no replacement for a qualified mental health expert, a study by the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom shows what pet owners already know: dogs are good listeners who are capable of distinguishing between content (i.e., what words are being said) from emotion (i.e., the tone or feeling behind words).

How Does Pet Ownership Make People Happier?

Social support is a key ingredient for a long and happy life. Somewhat surprisingly, research reported by the University of Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center shows that people with social ties live longer regardless of their socioeconomic status, the amount of tobacco and alcohol consumption, and physical health habits. And as any dog owner can tell you, dogs help foster human-to-human companionship through neighborhood walks and park meet-ups. Mercifully, these face-to-face interactions play nicely with social-distancing recommendations.

While staying at home is required to prevent the spread of Covid-19, reliance on social ties close to home has become increasingly important. For those whose family and friends are thousands of miles away, neighbors are an essential source of logistical and emotional support. A survey conducted by the University of Western Australia shows that pet owners are 60 percent more likely to meet people in their neighborhoods. Building social connections through pet ownership can help people lean on each other by picking up mail, providing employment opportunities, and helping create a solid sense of community during a time of global crisis.

Of course, happiness is subjective and one person’s definition of happiness may not match up with someone else’s. A survey conducted by OnePoll.com shows that pet owners are more likely to be married, have a child, a university degree, and work in a job they enjoy. On the other hand, people without pets are more likely to have paid off their mortgage and retire earlier. Beyond the unique definitions of happiness, pet owners in this survey laughed more and reported feeling more relaxed in the company of their pets.

Wondering whether a dog or a cat will make you happier? As it turns out: dog owners report the highest levels of happiness. According to the Washington Post, 36 percent of dog owners report being “very happy” compared to 28 percent of those who own a dog and a cat.

As for the 32 percent of people who reported having no pets and still report being “very happy”? It’s possible they could be volunteering their time in animal shelters, giving back to their communities, and gaining the physical and emotional benefits of connectivity in other ways.

Rachel Drummond (Writer)

Rachel is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @oregon_yogini).