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Having a Pet Might Boost Your Health

Man with cat
By John Whyte, MD, MPHFebruary 27, 2020

My 7-year-old had his heart set on getting a pet for his birthday. After changing his mind several times about what type of pet (dog, gerbil, and snake (!) were all considered), he finally settled on a fish (thank goodness). He is now the proud caregiver of one colorful and beautiful twin-tail half-moon betta fish, named “Betta-7.” 

As a physician, I don’t often talk to patients about pets, but seeing my son’s delight with Betta-7 makes me think that maybe I should. I write a lot of prescriptions for medicines to help keep people healthy, and I counsel people about healthy eating and the need for physical activity. Yet, I rarely, if ever, talk about one of the best ways to improve your health – getting a pet.

Research shows that pets can improve our health and increase quality of life.  Interacting with pets may reduce cortisol – a hormone that increases stress. As a result, it can improve blood pressure, which lowers risk of heart attack and stroke. Some data suggest that petting an animal can reduce heart rate, which can be calming.

Bonding with a pet is known to combat loneliness and depression. Loneliness plays a major role in overall health and represents a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Pets might also promote social interaction. For instance, don’t we all talk to strangers, when walking a dog? And doesn’t everyone share their favorite cat stories? Studies have shown the human-animal bond can release the hormone oxytocin, which promotes feelings of love and well-being. And it goes both ways – for the pet and you!

Pets also keep people physically active – and not only because you need to walk the dog. Having a pet requires you to go out to buy food and supplies, which gets you moving and provides an opportunity to interact with people. 

Over the years, we have learned about the power of purpose. For some people, caring for pets provides a sense of responsibility and purpose, which contributes to overall well-being.

So when you are thinking about ways to improve your health, consider the role that pets can play. And don’t just think it’s about having a dog or cat. I’m happy to report that caring for a fish can bring health benefits as well. I can report from personal experience that watching Betta-7 swim can result in a feeling of serenity (for me) and, for my son, sheer joy.

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