I live downtown in the city of Washington DC. While I love the energy and the ability to walk nearly everywhere, there are some downsides relative to living in the suburbs, like a heightened risk of crime. One night a couple of years ago, my family accidentally left a back window in our house open just a crack.
The next morning I found the same window gaping wide open, the screen sliced by a knife, and a couple of pieces of old electronics missing. I was grateful that our family was safe and that nothing irreplaceable had been stolen from our home. But there was a second and quite upsetting problem: our two Siamese cats, brothers Nico and Blue, were missing.
Fortunately, we found the cats in the back yard and alley. Presumably they had jumped out of the window into the cold, rainy night. They hadn’t made it too far, and they seemed grateful to be home again, warm and dry.
I called the police to report the incident, and several officers came to our house to take fingerprints and file a theft report. Mostly, though, they wanted to talk about cats.
“What beautiful cats these are. I love cats!” One of the officers pulled out his phone to show pictures of his own cats, while others began to share their personal cat stories. An incident that could’ve been worse in so many ways ended with me and a group of heavily armed policemen bonding over cats.
They say the dog is man’s best friend. I’ve never had a dog, but I can tell you (and the DC cops will back me up) that cats can make great friends, too. To top it off, I’ve since learned about how cats, dogs, and other pets contribute to our health, both physically and mentally.
The physical benefits of pets for human health
Many pets increase their owners’ level of exercise. Urban dog owners get out of bed rain or shine to walk their dogs. But even pets that don’t need to be walked (like my cats, or birds, rodents, fish, and reptiles) increase their owner’s activity levels through caretaking activities like feeding, grooming, playing, and upkeep of their cages or litter boxes.
It turns out there are measurable cardiovascular benefits associated with having pets. Studies show that people with pets have “significantly lower" baseline blood pressure levels than people without pets.
In addition, pet-owners recover more quickly from stressful situations than their pet-less counterparts. Interestingly, one study also shows that pet owners demonstrate their highest level of resilience when their pets are physically present, so it’s not just a cumulative conditioning effect.
The nonprofit HABRI Central has collected over 29 thousand resources including peer-reviewed journal articles, books, videos, and datasets that document the relationships between people and animals(!).
Among HABRI’s macro takeaways is that human-animal bond increases oxytocin levels in the brains of both pet owners and their dogs. Oxytocin is a “feel good” hormone that plays a key role in bonding, socialization, and stress relief.
Oxytocin slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, inhibits stress hormones, and slows our breathing. It also creates a sense of focus, calm, and comfort. Pet ownership also appears to strengthen the immune system.
No comparable studies on cats were reported. (Hmmm. More research is needed. Maybe cats just don’t care?)
The mental benefits of pets for human health
One of the most obvious mental health benefits of having a pet is companionship. My husband remembers snuggling with his dog, Kazzie, whenever he felt lonely as a kid. People of all ages, especially the elderly, benefit from companion animals. And pets often increase our social interactions with other people, too.
Fortunately, Nico and Blue are unusually friendly and demonstrative cats, and we treat them with respect. When one of them chooses to sit on a family member’s lap and purr, it’s a special, almost sacred moment not to be interrupted. We consider having a cat on your lap a valid excuse. So if someone in the family makes a request, like “could you please (come here… answer the door, etc.) a valid answer is: “I would, but not now; I have a cat on my lap.”
Another way pets benefit our mental health is that they are judgment free, providing unconditional love. They’re not aware of whatever drama may be unfolding in the human world.
Finally, pets make us laugh. I know making it through the COVID quarantine would’ve been a lot harder and less entertaining without my cats. Even if you don’t have cats yourself, you have to admit that the Internet would be a poorer place without cat humor.
Pets as professional healers
Some hospitals and nursing homes capitalize on the healing power of pets. The Nemours Children’s Hospital in Delaware, for example, employs a small staff of therapy dogs that visit children in their hospital rooms. Each of the pets has a leave behind “card” with his or her picture and a few key hobbies (eg “catching frisbees”).
In addition, equine therapy (involving riding or being in the company of horses) is widely used to provide physical and emotional healing to populations as diverse as the elderly, veterans, troubled youth, and children with autism spectrum disorder.
What type of pet is best for you?
Some people are firmly committed to Team Dog or Team Cat, and apparently geography has something to do with our ownership choices. But many of us feel we could go either way when it comes to dogs and cats, and there are so many other options, too, from chinchillas to parrots.
Owning a pet is a serious commitment, as many of the people who acquired COVID pets are learning. Care for a pet can get expensive, and some require significant time and/or training.
Having a pet also minimizes your flexibility for travel. There's also a risk that pets may trigger allergies or asthma. For me, though, the upsides of my pets far outweigh the downsides.
You can take a quiz here developed by Chewy to find out what kind of pet is the best fit for you (apparently I should’ve gotten a bird).
Do you already have a pet, and if so, how do you think he or she contributes to your health and wellbeing?