Updated: Feb 18, 2019
One only need Google the words "pets" and "happiness" to learn that there is an overwhelming body of evidence suggesting/reporting/confirming that pets can play an integral role in the positive health and well being of their owners. Cats, dogs, even scaled and feathered friends, can bring us great joy. But, what's the science behind these findings. Is it all hypotheses, or do pets really make us happier?
Let's begin with children and pets. An ongoing study by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) has thus far determined that "exposure to certain allergens and bacteria early in life, before asthma develops, may protect children from wheezing, a precursor of asthma, at age 3" (more info here). In fact, recent studies have concluded that children raised in over-sterilized environments are more at risk for developing adverse health issues later in life. Being "dirty" (to a reasonable degree), having pets, and exposing kids to general environmental bacteria and microbes early in life can help them build healthy immune systems as adults. Obviously, this is not a blanket statement, as children with certain childhood diseases and lowered immunity do not abide by the same general rules.
Additionally, recent studies report correlative evidence that children with autism showed greater social skills—improved play, better interaction with other children, improved peer/team performance—for those who had pets at a young age. Another study, from NIH's National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), "has shown how social behaviors in children who have autism temporarily improve after even a short play period with a live animal such as a guinea pig (versus a toy)" (more info here). As with the aforementioned study, there are contraindications for introducing pets to children with autism. For example, some children with autism may be easily agitated or have noise sensitivities that would make it difficult for them to handle active or barking dogs. In these situations, pets could have adverse and consequential effects on children with autism. But, moving forward, let's just assume that I'm talking about positive effects of pets on the general populace, with no hereditary health issues.
For adults, stroking animals has been shown to help lower blood pressure and reduce stress, in addition to providing love and affection to the pet receiving the attention! For dog owners, health benefits can extend into good heart health as well, with daily walks and/or runs keeping owners (and pets) active and fit. Some studies suggest that for those feeling lonely or depressed, animals may provide a sense of belonging. However, it's also important to note that distinctions should be made between those experiencing bouts of depression versus those with clinical depression. While pets may help those experiencing temporary feelings of sadness and isolation, clinical depression is a mental health disorder that should be treated by a medical professional. Finally, for the elderly, pets have been shown to positively impact mental and physical health, especially for those who have lost spouses, friends, and/or other family members to illness or death.
Which brings us full circle to the question: Do pets really make us happier? I would say, overall, yes! So, this Valentine's Day, be sure to show your pets some extra love. Don't have a pet in your life (but want one), check out the resources below to find your furry, forever friend.
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