The unconditional love of a pet is one of the joys of life for many. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about two-thirds of U.S. households own at least one pet.
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And it turns out, those critters do more for us than we realize. The study of human-animal interactions is relatively new, but a growing body of research is showing that pets provide a number of benefits for us both physically and psychologically.
Some of the best studies in the field have found that animals often help to improve our cardiovascular health. One NIH-funded study of 421 adults who had suffered heart attacks found that after one year, dog owners were more likely to be alive than those without a dog no matter how severe their heart attack. Another study of 240 married couples with pets found that they had lower heart rates and blood pressure, whether at rest or undergoing stressful tests, than those without pets.
And a number of research teams have found that dog owners often get more exercise than non-dog owners. Two large NIH-funded studies following 2,000 or more adult dog owners found that they were less likely to be obese, they walked more and were more mobile than their counterparts without dogs.
In addition to being more fit, several studies have found that dog owners tend to have more social interactions. This is because people tend to reach out and talk to someone more often when they see a person walking a dog. And research has historically shown that people who are more socially connected tend to live longer.
Today, we are taking advantage of these health benefits by taking our beloved animals into the clinical setting. Like Cleveland Clinic, more and more hospitals and nursing homes are beginning to employ animal-assisted therapies. We see both anecdotal as well as scientific evidence that hospitalized patients visited by therapy dogs often have less anxiety, lower blood pressure and are generally happier.
Cleveland Clinic’s Robert Hobbs, MD, of Cardiovascular Medicine, knows from personal experience that owning dogs has been good for his own health. “Walking is important for your pet and good for you” he says. “You don’t need to buy an exercise machine when you own a dog. Dogs will remind you with a certain look that it’s time to go. I walk my labs two miles in the evenings after work.”
[Pictured is Dr. Hobbs’ black lab, Guinness, one of his two dogs that keeps him on a regular walking schedule]