If you have a pet, you’ve probably already made up your mind: Having a dog or a cat around is a positive thing. And science backs you up on that! Over the years, hundreds of studies have pointed to the ways that pets improve our lives. There’s evidence that dogs boost your immune system. Some studies determined that your cat lowers your risk of heart disease. And researchers have found that pets can even make you a happier and better person, in addition to improving your health.
However, keep in mind that despite the statistical likelihood that your pet can improve your health, Fluffy and Fido are no substitutes for a physician or a psychologist. Some researchers remain skeptical that pets actually have a measurable impact on our mental or physical health at all.
Those caveats aside, read on to check out some of the most compelling evidence that your pets really do improve your life.
1. Pets improve your mood
Any pet owner probably has plenty of anecdotal evidence that owning and interacting with a pet can improve your mood. A review of numerous recent studies determined that there’s evidence for animals’ ability to promote a positive mood in the people who interact with them. And most people know that spending time with a dog increases your levels of oxytocin, also called the “love hormone.”
However, as Scientific American notes, oxytocin isn’t simple. Its effects depend on the situation, and it can produce opposite effects in different people. And in dogs, variations in the oxytocin receptor gene are thought to cause different behaviors toward people. Nonetheless, the release of the hormone does seem responsible for the feeling of a bond between you and your pet — which can definitely improve your mood.
2. A dog — or even a cat — can improve your social life
If you have a dog, you’ve probably noticed that he’s pretty good at facilitating interactions with other people when he drags you out of the house to go on a walk. You’ll probably have more conversations with strangers when you’re walking with your dog versus when you walk alone, and some of those strangers might even become your friends.
In fact, dogs are quite good at prompting social interactions, especially if they’re of a breed or type that most people perceive in a positive light. (Think the most popular dog breeds, for instance.) Just don’t expect that adopting a pet is all you need to do to stop feeling lonely. One study found that adopting a pet may not make you less lonely or more happy than you originally felt, so you probably can’t depend on Fido or Fluffy alone to find you some friends.
3. They can improve your love life
In addition to making it more likely that you’ll talk to strangers and make friends on your walks around the neighborhood, your dog may even help you to find love. Having your dog with you may make you feel more confident about approaching someone attractive and asking them on a date. And the people you encounter may think that you look more approachable, relaxed, or happy when you have your dog with you.
The love life benefits of pet ownership aren’t just for dog owners, either. If you own a cat, potential romantic partners may perceive you as more caring, at least according to one survey. Of course, there are a few caveats. Your interactions with your cat may tell potential dates less about your personality than your interactions with a dog would. Also, some dog people don’t want to date cat people. (Their loss!)
4. Dogs improve your immune system
A number of studies have indicated that owning a dog improves your immunity and increases your levels of immunoglobulin A, an antibody that plays an important part in your immune system. The reason why probably won’t surprise anybody who’s ever owned a dog. Dogs expose us to microbes that we wouldn’t otherwise encounter in our clean indoor environments. They add a lot of diversity to the indoor microbiome.
Even cats — especially cats who spend part of their time outside — can raise the levels of different bacterial species in your home. (The jury’s still out on whether contact with feline microbes can help prevent immune disorders or boost your immune system.) Also, you should keep in mind that pet ownership may or may not be a great idea for people who are immunocompromised. Though on that front, cats seem to share fewer zoonotic pathogens with humans than dogs.
5. Pets make babies healthier, too
As you might imagine after learning that owning a dog can bolster your immune system, it turns out that having a dog or cat at home may make your baby healthier. Babies living in a pet-owning household are less likely to get sick than babies who live in pet-free households. The microbes that pets carry in from the outdoors seem to prime babies’ immune systems and help them fight off assaults from other bacteria and viruses.
However, you probably shouldn’t depend on a dog or a cat to reduce your child’s chance of developing allergies to animals. Despite many headlines citing claims to the contrary, a recent review found no apparent relationship between dog ownership and dog allergies. And researchers observed no significant difference in cat allergies between children who have a cat at home and those who do not, leaving pets’ roles in childhood allergies a gray area.
6. Walking a dog improves your physical fitness
Another important way that owning a pet may make your life better? Pet ownership can have a pretty strong effect on your physical fitness. Termed the “Lassie effect” by scientists, walking a dog offers health benefits both for you and the dog. A dog motivates you to exercise, and makes it significantly more likely that you meet the usual recommendation of 150 minutes of exercise per week. Dog owners may get more exercise than the rest of us. And people who regularly walk their dogs walk faster and for longer than others.
Cat owners don’t have to walk their pets. But they can still exercise with their animals. That may at least provide you with entertainment, even if it isn’t associated with health benefits. Taking a slightly unconventional yoga class with cats is strangely relaxing, according to attendees. We can’t say whether regularly doing yoga with your cat will help your health as much as walking a dog. (But yoga does certainly contribute to heart health, so it’s worth a try!)
7. Dogs and cats reduce anxiety
Adopting a pet is often a great move for people with anxiety because dogs and cats can reduce stress and anxiety. Just petting an animal seems to reduce stress in the short term. You see dogs in court rooms, hospitals, nursing homes, classrooms, and airports. In those settings, they make people in stressful situations feel better. Dogs reduce anxiety in other settings, too. Married couples who own dogs experience milder stress responses and faster recovery from stress. And, at least anecdotally, pets are a great distraction from anxiety. Having a pet also decreases the chances that your children will develop anxiety.
However, researchers have pointed out a few caveats. One study found that while dogs reduce people’s “subjectively experienced” stress and anxiety, they don’t necessarily reduce physiological stress responses. In other words, your dog may not be able to reduce your heart rate, blood pressure, or cortisol level when you’re stressed. But at least he’ll make you feel less stressed. How can an adorable fluffball who makes you laugh not relieve your stress, at least temporarily?
8. Cats and dogs lower your risk of heart disease
Owning a pet may have some big benefits for your heart. Researchers found that owning a cat lowers your risk of heart disease, as does owning and walking a dog. Plus, pet ownership reduces cardiovascular disease risk factors. Cat owners seem to enjoy a lower risk of heart attack deaths than non-cat owners. And a study from the 1980s reported that pet owners were more likely to be alive a year after a heart attack than people without pets. (However, some researchers have called the statistical methods of that study into question, though another study reproduced the results 15 years later.)
Of course, not all researchers who studied the topic found good news. One study found that pet owners who had a heart attack may actually be more likely to die or suffer another heart attack within a year of their first than patients who didn’t own a pet. Also, a review noted that the association between pet ownership and health seems particularly weak among the elderly.
9. Interacting with a pet can decrease your blood pressure
Worried about high blood pressure? Then spend more time with your dog! Hanging out with your dog decreases your blood pressure temporarily. And talking to a dog lowers your blood pressure more than having a conversation with another human. Plus, some researchers think that owning a pet can blunt your blood pressure response to stress; people with hypertension who adopted a dog or a cat had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations.
Just keep in mind that not every study has determined that interacting with a pet lowers your blood pressure. In fact, some researchers have found that dogs had no significant effect on participants’ blood pressure, or they’ve determined that pet ownership isn’t independently associated with lowered blood pressure. Whether a pet can decrease your blood pressure probably depends on factors that are unique to you and the specifics of your medical situation. (As always, you need to consult your physician, not just Fido, to make sure your blood pressure is where it should be.)
10. Dogs can increase your life expectancy
Another unexpected benefit of owning a dog? Researchers posit that having a dog can actually lengthen your lifespan. In addition to lowering cardiovascular disease incidents, bringing blood pressure down, and speeding recovery from heart attacks, research has credited dogs with boosting beneficial immune responses and reducing negative immune functions. Additionally, some dogs can sniff out cancer (and help you detect and treat it early).
However, bear in mind that a longitudinal study of 11,000 Americans found no relationship between dog or cat ownership and mortality rates. And of course, you shouldn’t think that just because you own a dog, you can ignore your doctor’s advice or disregard the usual guidelines of medical associations.
11. Pets in the workplace boost morale
Interacting with a dog or a cat can improve your life not only at home, but in the workplace, too. Having dogs in the workplace boosts morale, at least anecdotally. Most people agree that animals make the office a nicer place. Researchers have found that employees who bring their dogs to work experience less stress throughout the workday. Dogs in the workplace also seem to increase trust among coworkers.
Of course, bringing your dog to work won’t increase trust between you and a coworker who’s allergic to dogs, or just doesn’t like the four-legged creatures very much in the first place. In fact, more people are afraid of dogs than you might think. And it’s possible a co-worker with a dog phobia will be sensitive even to sounds like the jingling of your dog’s collar.
12. Pets may help people with depression
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that having a pet can help people cope with depression. (However, there are some definite problems with the studies that have investigated the topic.) Nonetheless, it’s logical that companionship from a beloved cat or dog can enhance your quality of life, whether or not you deal with depression.
Some researchers think that the physiological effects of the bacteria your pet exposes you to may contribute to the anti-depressive benefits of pet ownership. However, a pet isn’t necessarily a sure way to stave off depression for everybody. In fact, some researchers found that older adults who feel highly attached to their dogs may feel more depressed than others. An Australian study also associated dog ownership with depression in older adults. And a Finnish study determined that pet owners are possibly more prone to depression (as well as panic attacks and migraines) than people without pets.
13. Dogs can improve your emotional well-being
Even if you aren’t coping with depression, loneliness, or anxiety, you may still experience emotional benefits from owning a pet. Having a dog may improve your emotional health since dogs seem to empathize with people. They sense and respond to people’s emotions; service dogs, for instance, can help people with post-traumatic stress disorder to handle their anxiety or anger.
There’s evidence that dogs really do care about whether their owners are unhappy. They do their best to provide sympathy and comfort when you’re sad, or share your joy when you’re happy. True empathy, of course, is a pretty complex emotion, and not all researchers think that dogs can really empathize with humans. Some think that they’re just responding to your emotions without fully understanding them.
14. Cats teach people to behave more kindly and gently
Owning a pet may not only improve your physical and mental health, but may also change how you interact with the people and animals around you — that includes your cat. Having a cat can make you — and your children — kinder and gentler. Researchers note that while many dogs tolerate rougher handling, cats insist on gentle handling. So you, or your children, have to learn to be gentle if you want to get affection or attention from the cat.
People think of their pets as part of their family. Despite the backlash against millennials who consider their dogs or cats their children, treating an animal as another family member probably makes you act more kindly and gently toward that pet.
15. Pets make you a better person
Want to know the ultimate way your dog or cat is improving your life? Researchers indicate that owning a pet may make you a better person. That sounds like a pretty tall order. However, according to a survey of dog owners (a group who, we have to admit, isn’t the most unbiased group of people), owning a pet has made them more patient, more responsible, or even more affectionate. The evidence is pretty anecdotal, but it also probably makes sense to anyone who’s ever been responsible for taking care of a pet.
The benefits aren’t just for stressed-out adults, either. Owning a dog or a cat can teach children responsibility. This is especially true if their parents task them with taking care of a pet’s nutrition and grooming and let them participate in their veterinary care.