Do pets make you healthier and happier? Here's what research shows.

Do pets make you healthier and happier?
How much do pets influence human well-being? A new study may offer some answers. (Getty Images)

Pets can provide love, happiness, companionship and more to their owners. But how much does having a pet influence a person’s health? And is there ever a downside to owning one? Here’s what some studies say about the positive — and in some cases, not-so-positive — effects of pet ownership.

Pets help reduce stress and anxiety

Petting, stroking and touching an animal can provide a calming effect, Jeff Yoo, a marriage and family therapist at Moment of Clarity Mental Health Center, tells Yahoo Life. A 2023 American Psychological Association poll of 2,200 adults on the mental health benefits of having pets found that 86% of respondents said their pets have a mostly positive impact on their well-being. Of those polled, 69% said their pets help reduce stress and anxiety, while 66% said they provide a calming presence.

For people living with anxiety disorders, Yoo says the percentages might be higher. “Persons with anxiety disorders are often assisted by service animals in social settings, appointments or in situations where they may experience fear or stress,” he tells Yahoo Life.

A 2019 study found that the use of dogs on college campuses helped reduce depression and anxiety in students. This was true whether the dogs were trained specifically for therapy or were general house-trained dogs. Additionally, researchers found that showing students videos of dogs had a positive effect, though not as great as interacting with dogs in-person.

“We’ve seen evidence of the impact of animals in creating therapeutic experiences for people for decades,” Dr. Warren Ng, director of clinical services child and adolescent psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “The role of animal-assisted therapy has often included dogs, cats, birds, horses and other animals into therapeutic treatment plans.”

Equine-assisted therapy has leveraged the role of horses in providing therapeutic interventions with youth living with a variety of emotional and behavioral problems, he notes.

“These therapies can work alongside cognitive behavioral therapy and other psychotherapies,” says Ng.

They can make you more physically active

A 2023 analysis of 49 studies found that pets have a moderately significant positive effect on the physical activity of owners compared to non-pet owners — namely, pet owners were physically active more often than non-owners.

Similarly, a 2019 survey of 694 adults living in the U.K. reported that dog owners are more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than people without a dog. The dog owners walked with their dogs a median of seven times per week and for a median of 220 minutes per week.

Pets can be good for your heart too. According to the American Heart Association, dog owners are 31% less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than non-dog owners.

Animals can also help people manage physical challenges and conditions, says Yoo. “Physically disabled persons use dogs for service animals, as well as medical conditions, such as motor skills, epilepsy, heart and respiratory ailments,” he says.

Pets help ease loneliness — but not always

For people who experience loneliness and isolation, Yoo says that including pets in their daily lives helps them cope. “They share everything with their pets — food/meals, housing and beds. Some that have sleep issues find comfort in the companionship of their pet,” he says.

However, data on the matter is lacking. While pet owners reported that their animal companions improve their lives, in a study conducted at Michigan State University, researchers found there was not a reliable association between pet ownership and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on assessments of 767 people over three times in May 2020, the researchers determined that, despite pet owners reporting that their pets made them happy, helped them feel more positive emotions and provided affection and companionship, they also reported negative aspects of pet ownership including being worried about their pet's wellbeing and having their pets interfere with working remotely.

Moreover, when their happiness was compared to non-pet owners, the researchers found that there was no difference in the wellbeing of the two groups. The data held true no matter the type of pet, how many pets the owner had or how close the owners were with their pet.

“The downside of having pets is understanding what they need to be taken care of. There can be issues related to time, cost, space, effort and logistics,” says Ng. Depending on the type of pet and its age, “the needs of the pet may exceed the benefit of having a pet depending on the individual,” he says.

Pets require a lot of care and work

A review of 17 studies found both positive and negative effects of pet ownership for those with mental health conditions. On the positive side, pets can be a source of comfort and can help improve mood. However, negative aspects of having a pet included financial costs, unruly pets that were detrimental to mental health, feeling guilty not being able to manage difficult pets and an inability to reach goals, such as travel, because of having to care for pets.

The inability to financially care for pets, such as providing them veterinary treatment, is a challenge Yoo has witnessed. “The responsibility for health and grooming can be expensive, as well as an area of concern for the owner,” he says. “There is a patient that failed to purchase his own medication in order to provide care for his canine companion. This was an issue for his practitioner, who was able to offer referrals to resources for future crises in this case.”

Loss of a pet comes with grief

When a pet dies, Yoo says the grief can be similar to the loss of a loved one, but people may not necessarily understand the pain you’re feeling. According to a review that analyzed 48 studies on the topic, bereaved pet owners frequently reported feelings of embarrassment and loneliness following the loss of their pet.

The researchers determined that bereaved pet owners are likely to experience disenfranchisement surrounding their loss — meaning that the loss might not be viewed as valid or openly recognized by society, which can leave them feeling even more alone. “This is where therapy and support is essential when dealing with mental health and wellness after the death of a pet,” says Yoo.

The review also noted that the types of coping mechanisms used by bereaved pet owners ranged from isolation, social support and religion to memorialization of their pet and focusing on relationships with other animals.

“Pets can also outlive their owners, so the issue of being prepared for the emotional and psychological aspects of caretaking need to be considered,” Ng says.

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