Rewards of Animal Ownership: How Pets Enhance Human Well-BeingDec 29, 2023 09:22AM ● By Karen Shaw Becker, DVM
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When stress and cognitive decline are prevalent concerns, the role of companion animals in promoting human cognitive health has gained significant attention. Pet parents know that having a furry family member at home can enhance life in countless ways emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically. Numerous studies reinforce the idea that having a dog, cat or other animal companion can have a positive impact in enhancing mental faculties and mitigating cognitive decline. That is great news for the 86.9 million U.S. households that own a pet.
A population-based study published in the Journal of Aging and Health examined the association between pet ownership and cognitive health in older adults. It evaluated the cognitive skills of 1,369 Medicare recipients over a six-year period, of which 53 percent were pet owners and 32 percent were pet owners for five or more years. The results showed that cognitive scores decreased at a slower rate in pet owners, and especially among long-term pet owners. The study suggests that the presence of a companion animal can contribute to cognitive stimulation and improved mental faculties.
Conventional wisdom would have us believe that human well-being is the result of happiness and the absence of physical and mental illness. However, an article published in the journal Health and Quality of Life Outcomes analyzed data from 21 countries and suggests that well-being is the result of several factors, including having a sense of purpose in life. A different study on pet ownership and brain health noted that pets give their owners reason to live. Pets have the potential to increase feelings of social support, give owners a sense of meaning and improve their lifestyles by adding structure to daily routines.
Mental and Physical Health Benefits
Pet ownership is associated with reduced levels of depression, anxiety and stress. In a study published in BMC Psychiatry, domesticated animals were found to help individuals with mental health conditions. One participant in the study described the emotional and coping support from their pet, “She’s always there for me in a regular way of managing my stress. I tell her about my days, she snuggles, cuddles and sleeps with me.”
Pet parents benefit by maintaining physical function and leisure time physical activity as they age, according to a study in Innovation in Aging that measured the physical function of 637 generally healthy people over 10 to 13 years and found physical decline was slower among pet owners. In turn, this improved physical activity benefits psychological health, so walking the dog has multiple benefits.
Before getting a pet to improve mental health through exercise, ensure those exercise goals are in alignment with the needs of a prospective animal companion. This is especially true with dogs that require regular walks. There are significant differences in how much and what kind of exercise each dog breeds needs.
Making the Most of Pet Companionship
To harness the benefits of companion animals for cognitive and physical health, certain lifestyle and other considerations should be taken into account, such as travel frequency, homeowner association restrictions and the cost of pet ownership. Owning a pet is a long-term responsibility that should not be taken lightly.
It is essential to ensure a safe and suitable environment for both the individual and the pet. Adequate space, a balanced diet, regular veterinary care and ample opportunities for exercise and mental stimulation are crucial for maintaining the well-being of the pet and owner.
Regular interactions and activities with a pet are key. Engaging in mentally stimulating exercises, such as puzzle toys or training sessions, can provide cognitive enrichment for both the pet and the owner, creating opportunities for bonding and mutual cognitive stimulation.
It is also important to note that while pet ownership can have positive psychological benefits, it should not be viewed as an alternative to necessary clinical treatments that address specific mental health conditions. A more integrative approach to treatment that includes pet ownership may be the most effective and rewarding of all.
Veterinarian Karen Shaw Becker has spent her career empowering animal guardians to make knowledgeable decisions to extend the life and well-being of their animals. Learn more at DrKarenBecker.com.