By Lynette A. Hart, PhD, Professor, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California

The company of a pet relaxes and entertains people, but the benefits of pet ownership go beyond simple joy. Studies have shown that keeping a pet improves the health and well-being of the people in the household. During stressful times, the comfort of a pet protects against depression and loneliness. People of all ages, both healthy and ill, benefit from living with a pet. In other studies, college-age women living with pets were less lonely than if they lived alone, and elderly women living with only a pet had better mental health than those who lived alone. Animal companions, both cats and dogs, help ward off depression and loneliness among people with AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease. Stressful situations have less of an impact on elderly pet owners than on those who do not own pets—the pet owners visit their physician less frequently during such times.

Pets allow their owners to feel needed as caregivers and nurturers, while also nurturing their owner. An owner’s mood or physical capabilities do not change a pet’s affection. An animal’s unconditional affection often increases its owner’s ability to cope with personal setbacks and depression. Pets reduce loneliness in a number of ways. Individuals who live “alone” with a pet are actually part of a family; they can look forward to being greeted and recognized when they walk in the door. The simple acts of feeding and caring for a pet can make its owner feel needed and provide another reason for living and staying healthy.

Pets also motivate people to be more active and social. A pet is a powerful ally for starting conversations and making new acquaintances. Walking the dog provides not only physical exercise but also an opportunity to interact with humans, such as other dog owners and curious children. Many people are inspired by walking their dogs, using their pets as volunteers in nursing homes, or even just actively grooming, training, and pampering their pet. Without this bond, they would be less involved and engaged in living and more vulnerable to depression. Walking the dog and being outdoors where social contact is possible are healthful effects of living with a canine companion.

The daily comfort, social interaction, and motivation provided by pets improve cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure. Even relaxing with, talking to, or simply watching an animal can lower a person’s blood pressure. One study of patients with high blood pressure showed that those who were given pets handled stressful tasks better than those who relied on blood pressure medication alone. Additionally, research shows people are more likely to survive the year after a heart attack if they have both a companion dog and a human social support network. Animal companionship is commonly linked to lower death rates and better longterm health.