Why Having a pet is Good for Your Health

Studies in the science of zooeyia have discovered multiple positive effects of being around animals.

Sandra Gurvis
Rustin Moore, dean of Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, with dogs Teddy and Travis.

Zooeyia, the science of studying the miscellaneous health effects of interacting with animals, has taken on growing importance during a year of high anxiety and social distancing.

But those who manage the Columbus Police Therapy Dog unit already knew that. “We bring the dogs to witnesses, victims and officers,” explains Sgt. Chantay Boxill, who oversees the unit. Not only does their presence help with processing trauma, but it provides a diversion and calming effect.

“People interact with a dog more easily than a uniformed officer,” says Boxill. “Children, especially, will talk to the dog, and we can glean a lot of valuable information.”

The popular canine unit normally also visits schools, recreation centers and other city events. But during the early days of the pandemic, there’s even been a need for the dogs at the Ohio Emergency Management Agency’s state emergency operations center, says Boxill. People at the center were working long days, six days a week and needed some respite.

Chemistry at Its Best

There is definitely an “emerging and expansive body of evidence of the positive health benefits, whether physical, biochemical, social, behavioral, emotional, mental or psychological, on people from interacting with pets or other animals,” explains Dr. Rustin Moore, who studies the human-animal connection and is the dean of Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Several recent scientific studies show that oxytocin, the so-called love hormone that normally defines romantic relationships and parental bonding, is also released when people interact with their dogs, Moore says. “Other documented physical and biochemical changes that occur in people also occur in the animals, including slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and lower stress hormones, such as cortisol,” he adds.

Being with a pet feeds into our psychological need for physical touch, explains Shari Uncapher, director of outpatient behavioral health services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Physical touch decreases violence, builds trust, boosts our immune system and reduces stress,” she says.

Teddy and Travis pose with their owner Rustin Moore, dean of Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Healing Faster

Experts point out that having a pet is good for your health, both physically and mentally, including enhanced recovery from heart attacks and strokes specifically for those with dogs, says Moore. While partially due to the exercise required in walking and otherwise entertaining the pet “animals can help with anxiety and depression in a wide variety of situations, including staving off feelings of loneliness,” he adds.

Routine and Stabililty

Along with giving you a reason to get out of bed in the morning—Rover or Tigger must be fed and perhaps taken out for a walk. “Having a pet teaches responsibility,” points out Uncapher. “It gives a sense of organization and control, which can show kids how to deal with unpredictable situations.”

Adds Moore: “Pets are often the most stable part of a family structure and, in fact, more children grow up in a household with a pet than with their biological father or siblings.”

Increasing Socialization

Moore often says that a dog is a conversation waiting to happen and that owning one is a great way to meet other people. “Animals offer unconditional love, loyalty and non-judgment,” he says. “They don’t care what you look or smell like, the clothes you wear, the house you live in or the car you drive.”

That information probably explains why even people in the most dire of circumstances, such as being homeless or abused, refuse to leave their living situations unless their pet dog or cat comes along. “It may be the only good relationship that individual has,” adds Moore.

Pet ownership also teaches young children “how be gentle, caring and nurturing,” says Uncapher. Being around an animal can help even the most challenged youngsters get comfortable with social interactions, she explains. In at least one case she witnessed a child who had been chronically abused feel immediately more relaxed. “The minute the dog came into the room, the patient started cooperating and we were able to get through to him,” she says.

“Children ages seven and eight rank pets higher than people as providers of comfort and self-esteem, and to serve as confidants,” adds Moore.

Preventing Allergies

While research is still new “early exposure of dogs and cats to infants, babies and toddlers can greatly decrease the risk of developing allergies later on in life,” says Uncapher.

Sometimes pet ownership is not always feasible or even practical, however. Someone who is chronically ill, for example, or living in an unstable situation may lack the physical, mental or financial resources required in providing adequate care.

“Yet even they can benefit from even brief contact,” says Moore. “Dogs in particular are natural born listeners, providing positive nonverbal communication and feedback.” In fact, Moore believes that physicians should include relationships with pets as part of a person’s medical history and “prescribe” them if the situation warrants.

As hard as it might be for animal lovers to understand, “some people simply feel no connection,” says Uncapher. “If they own a dog, for example, it’s for hunting or guarding and is considered property that can be replaced, like a lawn mower,” she adds. Others have no interest whatsoever in furry companionship. “Animals just aren’t their thing,” she continues.

Still, for many people, pets are considered family members. “In 2018, Americans spent $75 billion on their pets,” says Moore. That number continues to skyrocket during the pandemic. “People are at home with their animals and are thus more tuned into their needs such as veterinary care and grooming,” she adds.

Even those who are petless can be affected in a positive way. “Sometimes just seeing an animal can raise your spirits, no matter what your age or situation,” adds Uncapher.