The Health Benefits of Having a Pet
Have you ever thought about what the health benefits are of having a pet?  In this article we will explore the real benefits of having a pet and along the way, pick up some historical trivia about the relationship between humans and pets.  If I get off into the weeds during this article, just look the other direction and understand that I love history, and it is hard for me to NOT fall off into the weeds when talking about this subject.  Historically, pets of all types have been a part of our lives since dirt was young, so to speak, and they hold a special place in our lives.

As I normally do, I want to set the stage for the discussion, starting with what is a pet?  The dictionary defines a pet as a domesticated animal kept for companionship or an amusement animal, animate being, beast, or creature.  On a side note, if you ever get bored and want something interesting to read, look up the full definition of pet in the dictionary.  It is interesting that one of the definitions is that a pet is a pampered and usually spoiled child. I don’t know about everyone else, but my dog fits that definition!!

Dogs and cats are the most common pets humans have, but the list of pets humans can and do have isn’t strictly limited to them.  People throughout history have had pets, and here are some historically famous individuals who had pets that you might recognize: Elvis Presley had wallabies (similar to kangaroos but smaller), Josephine Baker had a cheetah (first African American woman to star in a major motion picture in 1927), John Quincy Adams, our sixth President of the United States, had an alligator that lived in the East Room’s bathroom for a few years, Audrey Hepburn and her pet deer, and Lord Byron with his pet bear.  The list is endless for historical people who had pets of all types, ranging from the common to the exotic and from the smallest to the largest. Pets have been involved with humans for possibly tens of thousands of years.

There’s a reason dogs are dubbed man’s best friend.  Evidence supports that dogs were the first to be domesticated about 40,000 years ago as a food source, for work, or companionship. Cats were initially domesticated in the Far East, primarily Egypt, 10,000 years ago. Pet keeping, or more commonly known by the scientific community as pet harnessing, isn’t just a subject close to our hearts, but one that says a lot about the evolution of human society.  Once past the unsavory notion of being a food source, ancient peoples who had pets had free time and wealth.  We won’t fall off in the weeds regarding money, but the definition of wealth in ancient times meant that you didn’t have to risk your life for lunch and could afford to sit down for a few moments to enjoy your surroundings. Now fast forward to modern times.

Enough on the pet harnessing history; let’s move to the key reason for this article, which is the health benefits of having a pet in our lives.  The most obvious benefits of having pets are unconditional love and companionship. We feel especially secure with dogs and cats because of the unconditional love they provide, helping us to manage loneliness and depression.  Taking care of a dog or a cat also provides a sense of purpose and a feeling of validation when you wake up or come home and there’s someone who’s happy to see you. The physiological aspect of having a pet goes even further.  Scientific studies have proven that when we feel securely attached to our pets, there are biological brain effects that reduce stress response, which affects our breathing rate, blood pressure and oxygen consumption or anxiety level. Oxytocin is also boosted in both the pet and the human when we stare into the eyes of our pets.  It is well established by now that pets play a huge part in managing high levels of stress, like PTSD or any kind of anxiety disorders.  Studies were performed using humans and dogs, but the effects are transferrable to all pets and humans once the feeling of secure attachment is present. Physical benefits include the activity necessary to take care of a pet, such as playing with the animal or taking it for a walk. People who have dogs tend to be more active than non-pet owners in that they take their dogs on walks, reducing cardiovascular risk by lowering their blood pressure and cholesterol levels.  And of course, the social benefits of having a pet when during walks or play activity, you meet other people. It isn’t easy for everyone to engage in social interaction, even when it comes to small talk. Pets can be the perfect conversation starter allowing for the building of new relationships with others who have similar or same interests!

Emotionally healthy people are resilient, self-confident, and capable of developing strong, healthy relationships. Interestingly, people who have pets are typically found to exhibit these characteristics, again more so than non-pet owners.  Pets also serve as constant reminders to live in the moment because it is the only way they know how to live. Humans tend to ponder over the past and worry about the future, but pets simply live in the here and now.

One aspect of having a pet that isn’t positive is when they are nearing the end of their lives. Some pets are blessed with long lives. For example, American alligators can live for up to greater than 50 years, elephants 70, parrots 80 and tortoises, who can live to be 150 years old. Some pets have such long lives that they actually outlive their human companions and are listed as part of the person’s estate upon their death.  This isn’t a part of having a pet that I am going to explore at length in this article, for losing a pet is next to one of the saddest days we can face other than losing a loved one. They become so intertwined in our lives that when that day does arrive, it feels as if your heart breaks, and you are filled with such grief that it almost seems unbearable. I guess I would say that if there are any health benefits to losing a pet is that it reminds us of how precious and short life really is, to grieve, which is part of a healthy coping process and part of life, and that we need to live every day in the moment, just as our pets do.

Having a pet brings such joy into our daily lives.  They truly love unconditionally, only wanting to please us, become very protective of us and I believe, can sense our emotions, happy or sad.  Though studies list for us the scientific health benefits of having a pet, as pet owners, we know they bring much more to our lives. They bring some kind of magic to our lives unknown by science and through their companionship, a more enriched life.  The Nurse.

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