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5 Amazing Reasons to Pet (or Own) a Pet

A growing body of research suggests that interacting with animals can benefit body and mind


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In a bad mood? Try petting a dog for a few minutes. It doesn’t matter if it’s yours or someone else’s. What’s important is that you like animals and that Fido’s friendly. Petting perks run the gamut from physical to psychological and emotional.

Here's what research has to say about the connection between petting pets and brain health.

1. They flood your brain with a feel-good hormone.

A review of 69 studies on the effects of human-animal interaction published in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that the simple act of stroking a four-legged friend can yield significant benefits. A common thread in the research was an increase in a brain hormone known to lower stress hormone levels, bringing about feelings of calm, trust and relaxation. “We concluded that the activation of the oxytocin system, mainly via touch, is the key factor in explaining many of the effects of human-animal interaction,” says lead author Andrea M. Beetz, a psychologist with the University of Rostock in Germany and the University of Vienna in Austria.

2. They help you stay social.

“Animals are a wonderful social partner that provide the feeling of being needed,” Beetz says. A 2017 report by the Global Council on Brain Health — an independent collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts — confirms the social virtues of pet interactions, describing dogs as social icebreakers that serve as a conversation trigger between strangers. As a result, dog walkers are more likely to experience social contact and conversation with other people than walkers without pets. This is particularly important for individuals over age 50 who may be empty nesters or might have lost a partner, says Kate Hodgson, a staff member in the department of continuing professional development, Faculty of Medicine, at the University of Toronto.

More than half of adults 40+ own a pet, according to the 2016 AARP Social Engagement and Brain Health Surveywhich examined factors that influence social engagement, isolation and loneliness. While most pet owners say that their animal of choice offers them companionship, dog-only owners feel more strongly about this than cat-only owners.

Don’t own a pet? You can still reap the social benefits by offering to walk a neighbor’s pet if they’re ill or on vacation. Or consider earning a little spending money by listing your dog-walking services on an app like Wag! or a site such as

3. They encourage healthy habits (and help you break bad ones).

One benefit of pet ownership is increased physical activity. A three-year study published in May 2008 found that there were significantly fewer obese dog walkers when compared with both owners who did not walk their dogs and nonowners. Another health benefit: fewer doctor visits. Surveys of pet owners compiled by German and Austrian researchers suggest that pet owners make about 15 percent fewer annual doctor visits than nonowners. What’s more, having a pet at home could alleviate the need for antidepressants because pets help to normalize brain chemistry.

In addition to encouraging good habits, owning a pet may also help you part with some bad ones. Hodgson, who’s both a vet and a researcher, coauthored a July 2015 review published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine that found people are more motivated to break bad habits such as smoking when they have pets at home. “Once people know about the negative effects of second-hand smoke on pets, they’ll stop to protect the pet,” she says.

4. They’re good for your heart — and mind.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted several studies on people with pets. The findings suggest that pet owners exhibit decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, all of which can minimize their risk for having a heart attack down the road. In addition, seminal research published in the July-August 1980 issue of Public Health Reports found that heart disease patients with pets had better one-year survival rates than similar patients without pets. Numerous studies have shown that what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain.

Several other studies have looked at the effects of pet ownership and pet therapy on older adults’ cognitive and emotional well-being. In what has come to be known in research circles as “dognition” — the effect of pet ownership on cognition in older adults — scientists have found that dog owners over age 65 performed significantly better than nonowners of pets on cognitive tasks. In research conducted in the department of psychology at the University of Richmond in Virginia, for instance, older adults were individually tested on their memory for words in recognition memory tasks, and the dog owners performed better than cat owners and nonowners, perhaps because of the fact that having a dog keeps them active — both physically and mentally because they’re constantly having to remember to feed, walk and play with them.

5. They help reduce stress and anxiety.

Beetz’s review found that human-animal interaction leads to a reduction of stress-related measurements such as cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure, as well as self-reported fear and anxiety. Her research cites one study in which elderly residents of a nursing home with a resident dog reported less tension and confusion, compared with residents of a home without a dog. While many animal studies are small and more research is required, there’s no doubt that running your fingers through fur can have a calming effect. In fact, Hodgson often uses animals to teach mindfulness techniques. “We found with animals, the warmth and softness of fur, and in this case a cat’s purr, really help you stay focused and remain in the moment.”

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