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Friends With Benefits

The pawsitive health rewards of pets

There’s no doubt about it; pets are good for you—maybe even better than veggies or yoga. That furry, feathered, scaly, or shell-wearing critter who shares your space can have a huge beneficial effect on the quality of your life and your health.

It’s a documented, scientific fact that people who share their lives with animals are happier, calmer, have lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, reduced stress, and less anxiety.

The mysterious bond that develops between us and our pets gives us purpose, comfort, friendship, and safety. How? Consider unconditional love, nonjudgmental acceptance, companionship, and unquestioning loyalty—qualities not found in most humans. They help safeguard against depression and loneliness. And what can be more joyous than your pet’s greeting when you come home?

“When you come home to your dog with a ball in her mouth, all the anxieties, deadlines, and worries seem to melt away,” say long-time Colorado Springs residents Karen and Scott Muise of their Brittany spaniel, Keeva. “She also keeps us moving,” they say, and she’s the perfect trail dog when hiking. And when she plops down next to them for a nap, “there is a quiet sense that all is well.”

Increased Fitness: Get Outside

one obvious benefit is increased physical activity. You have to exercise your dog whether you want to or not. What’s better than running with your pup, hiking up your favorite trail together, or just a neighborhood walkabout? Doing so reduces cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The result is you feel better, more energized, and definitely happier.

According to the American Heart Association, dog owners are 54% more likely to get the recommended amount of exercise than non–dog owners.

But before hitting the trail with your best furry friend, it’s important to also consider your dog’s health, age, build, and breed.

Stress Relief

had a rough day at the office? Sat in traffic for hours? Coming home to a happy face and wagging tail can wipe away the stress of the day. According to the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, dogs especially promote therapeutic and psychological well-being. Just petting your dog or cat for five minutes can increase your levels of the happy hormone oxytocin. The calming presence and social bond that pets bring can be very powerful.

Various studies show that people who share their lives with a pet have increased levels of serotonin and dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitters.

Retired Colorado Springs licensed professional counselor Vic Cruikshank and his wife, Cindy, can attest to this with their blended families of two dogs and four cats. “My guys have always been there for me and the best support I can imagine.” After a stressful or difficult day, “Simply touching them instantly calms me. When any of the pets see one of us upset or troubled, they will sit on our laps and just be there. No judgments, no criticism.”

Social Magnets

it’s hard to be out with your dog without connecting to other people. Dogs are social magnets and ice breakers. Take your doggie for a walk, and people will be drawn to you like bees to flowers. Or mingle with others at a dog park or pet-friendly restaurant for an instant uplift.

Zen Moments

nothing is more calming than petting a cat. Doing so has a Zen-like effect that brings instant, meditative relaxation. A purring kitty curled in your lap is linked to a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone. And the power of purrs is magical. A cat’s purring vibrations at a frequency of 20–140 Hz can promote bone strength and help heal soft tissue.

Vickie Smith, a passionate animal advocate and fund raiser for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, is a cat person. Currently, she lives with three cats—Diego, Mick Jagger, and Jet Black. In addition, she has bonded with two feral cats, Yellow and Killer, who live at the Broadmoor Golf Club and who she feeds every morning. “My cats are my children,” she says, “They give me reasons to get up in the morning. The sound of their purring calms me and relieves stress. I’m never lonely, and they make me laugh, which is good for the soul.”

Children and Pets

when it comes to kids and pets, studies abound, but recent National Institutes of Health studies focused on our relationships with animals, especially for children who have autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, or other conditions. According to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control study, having a pet dog or cat in the home was shown to have a beneficial effect on childhood stress and anxiety. And as published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, children exposed early on to animals in the home tend to develop strong immune systems overall.

Living with a companion animal involves responsibilities—time, attention, training, feeding, affection, and their health and well-being. The primary reason to adopt a pet is to give it a loving home. The health benefits are a priceless bonus. Good health is our most precious asset. Remember to take good care of your pets because they take care of you.

DID YOU KNOW

68% of U.S. households or 85 million families own pets.

U.S. pets include 90 million dogs and 94 million cats.

Generation Y and Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) comprise 35% of pet owners nationwide.

In this same age bracket, 43% of non–pet owners say they want or plan to own a pet in the future.

Baby Boomers (born between 1944 and 1964) comprise 32% of pet owners nationwide.

(Source: The American Pet Products Association)