Paw-fect pals: How pets boost health and happiness

Welcoming a fur baby, feathered friend or scaly companion into your family can bring endless joy and love to your home, along with many health benefits.

To say Australians love their pets is definitely an understatement.

We have one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world – 30.4 million of them to be precise, according to the latest Animal Medicines Australia report.

They give us companionship, unconditional love and a great reason to drag ourselves off the couch.

But the benefits don’t end there.

An increasing number of studies are revealing a wealth of other physical and psychological advantages to pet ownership.

Pets may boost cardiovascular health

Pets may melt our hearts, but they can also help make them stronger.

Several international studies have demonstrated lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and even reduced rates of obesity in pet owners.

RSPCA Australia senior scientific officer Dr Sarah Zito says pets keep us active.

“Dogs help us enjoy the outdoors and get regular exercise,” Dr Zito says.

Psychologist Melanie Jones says the boost to heart health is also down to hormones.

“Even just looking at your pet produces the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which lowers the stress hormone cortisol,” Melanie says.

Pet ownership may help you live longer

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but owning a pet may help keep you away from the doctor.

A 2006 study conducted in Australia and Germany found pet owners had 15 per cent fewer annual visits to the doctor than their non-pet-owning counterparts.

And a meta-analysis of several studies found dog owners have a 24 per cent reduced rate of mortality and a 31 per cent lower risk of death by heart attack or stroke.

Life with pets can be happier

Pet owners are also much less likely to feel lonely, depressed or anxious.

It’s not just people with four-legged friends – even watching Goldie swimming around his bowl can have a calming effect and may benefit wellbeing.

Dr Zito says research shows pets can help us cope with a range of negative emotions, including grief, stress and loss.

How pets can reduce risk of allergies

Having a pet – especially a dog – may help reduce allergies in children.

A US study found growing up with a dog in the house can boost a child’s immune system and reduce the likelihood of them developing an allergy by up to a third.

“Having a dog around during infancy may help to strengthen the immune system and may reduce the risk of allergies,” Dr Zito says.

People like pet people

Pets help you connect with other people and make you appear friendlier.

“Pets enhance social connectedness and social skills, and are a great conversation starter,” Dr Zito says.

People walking with dogs are perceived as more likeable and trustworthy and, even better, the act of walking produces oxytocin, which will make you feel more sociable and inclined to trust others, Melanie says.

“That all works together to mean you’re more likely to talk to people, and connect with people, if you are out walking a dog.”

Trusted friends: The many good reasons for having a pet

Written by Dimity Barber.