We’ve shared our lives with domesticated animals for more than 10,000 years, but have only recently started to study and understand the importance of the human-animal bond. Now 90% of pet owners see their pet as part of the family. While we look after them, they in return look after us. 90% of UK pet owners say owning a pet makes them happy and 88% feel pet ownership improves their overall quality of life. It’s proven that interacting with pets helps bring a healthier and happier life, strengthens community ties, providing friendship, laughter, joy, security and love.
In 2016 the ‘Companion Animal Economics’ report illustrated the myriad ways companion animals contribute to our society, and the costs they bring. Inspired by a similar 40-year old report, it highlights that despite huge changes in the pet care industry and the human pet relationship, little new information on the economic value of pets has been published. It makes a case for more government research in this area. The report estimates, on the basis that pet owners visit their GPs less often, that pet ownership in the UK could be saving the NHS £2.45 billion per year. It compares this with a reported figure of £3 million per year cost for the treatment of injuries resulting from dog bites. By increasing awareness of the social, economic and health value of pets to society, the report questions the notion that pets are just a luxury.
What are the benefits to us of pet ownership?
Physical health benefits:
- Pet owners visit the doctors less often, spending less money on medication.
- Studies found dog owners aged 65+ did more walking, with fewer periods of sitting than people without dogs. Exercise is linked to positive mental well being and dog walks lead to more social interactions.
- Pets reduce blood pressure and lower the risk of heart disease and cholesterol. One study linked cat ownership to reduced risk of dying from heart attack or stroke. Even the sound of a cat’s purr can calm your nerves and lower your blood pressure. It’s thought 28% of pet owners survive serious heart attacks compared to 6% that don’t own pets.
- Pets have been implicated as a possible cause of asthma and allergies. However, growing up with a dog during infancy can help strengthen the immune system. For example, it reduces the risk of allergies linked to asthma.
- Research shows that sound frequencies in the range of a cat’s purr can improve bone density and promote healing which may provide help for some humans.
- Guide dogs provide support to their owners, alert dogs alert their owners to an oncoming seizure giving time to get to a safe and private place. They can be life saving. Although not pets, these, and other forms of therapy animals, have been helping people for years.
Mental health benefits
- Pet ownership reduces stress levels. Petting your cat releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone or ‘cuddle chemical’ which can make you feel less stressed.
- For the bereaved, a strong attachment to a pet is associated with significantly less depression.
- Elderly people with pets generally live longer due to increased exercise, socialisation and mental activity.
- Having a pet reduces loneliness. Loneliness is linked to an increased risk of many diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
- Children suffering ADD are able to focus on pets, which enables them to learn how to concentrate.
- Children and adolescents who grow up around pets have higher self-esteem, show more empathy, and are often more involved in sports, hobbies, and clubs.
- Pet owners are less afraid of being a victim of crime, within and outside the home.
- Research into the roles of pets in long-term mental health-care suggests pets may provide security, proximity and consistency lacking from other relationships.
The bigger social picture
- Dogs increase the number and length of conversations, which is especially important within the elderly population, and within care homes. Indeed, therapy pets visit residential homes, hospitals, hospices, schools, day care centres and prisons.
- Pets help people connect, leading to increased community spirit, less crime, higher wealth and education.
- The human-animal bond depends on responsible pet ownership. Physically, socially and mentally healthy pets are a reflection of a healthy society.
That’s the theory, but…
I work for a charity providing free or reduced cost treatment for pets of owners falling on hard times. We see the strength of the human-animal bond daily. I recall Jack, a recovering drug addict, who told me he remained clean because of his dog Lenny who was given to him. ‘What would Lenny do if I was in prison?’, ‘Who would look after Lenny, if I was too ill to do it?’ he told me.
I meet elderly and lonely people who are buoyed though life partly due to the companionship of their pets. A dog needing to be walked may be the only reason for leaving the house that day… Which brings exercise, social interaction, and joy to them and their dog.
I recently spoke to a rough-sleeper in Manchester, and fussed his dog, Spot. He told me how Spot kept him warm at night, how much he valued his company, how loved he felt, and how many more conversations he had because of him. Charities like StreetVet provide healthcare for this growing population of pets. Spot appeared healthy and was wearing a scruffy, warm jumper. I can’t help but feel the relationship was mutually beneficial. As I sit here with my purring cat, vying with my laptop for attention and making me laugh, I realise that I too am smitten. They do not try and solve your problems, they do not argue, they are simply there.
While pets are often viewed as a luxury, the benefits they bring to our mental and physical health are perhaps underestimated. Should pet ownership be akin to other mainstays for a healthy lifestyle, such as a balanced diet and sleep? Pet ownership is already encouraged by many health professionals. I wonder will it one day be prescribed?