You’ve probably heard of the many research-backed benefits of pets —a longer life, improved health, more exercise, endless Instagram followers. (The science is still out on that last one.) And while we’re all-in for good news on our four-legged friends, we’re also all-in for real research. We’re going past the fluff on Fluffy by looking at what the science says about the perks of pet ownership. The findings might surprise you; they certainly surprised us.
Do Pets Make You Healthier? What the Research Says
Let’s take a look at what science can (and can’t) tell us about how our pets affect our well-being—in the long-term and the short-term. And don’t worry, there’s plenty of good news here. Oh and puppies. Have we mentioned puppies?
1. Pets might not be the source of your health
For a long time, research about the benefits of pets was a steady stream of good news and cute headlines. Then researchers got serious. Does having your very own little-legged Corgi affect your health? Can owning something that meows lengthen your life? It certainly seemed that way. Positive findings rolled in, and people started to refer to the “pet effect” as a foolproof way to improve your health and quality of life.
Enter controversy. In the past year, the beloved pet effect came under scrutiny with suggestions that previous research was sloppy and methods were questionable. So researchers did some serious science to see if the pet effect was real. Spoiler: It’s complicated.
- What real research discovered: A study published in August questioned the positive health outcomes found in children who grow up with pets. The study found that there was indeed a positive pet effect. But it wasn’t what it seemed. Once they started adjusting for factors such as family income, the effect completely disappeared.
- In English please: Researchers found a connection between pets and health and then they asked more questions. What other things might affect the pet-health connection? It turns out—a lot. For example, higher-income families are more likely to be healthy in the first place because they have more financial resources and access to care. You can’t chalk that up to a dog.
- Why it matters: It might be that families who own pets are already healthy, rather than the pets themselves bringing on the health benefits. The pet-effect might be more myth than fact. ::shudders:::
2. …but they might help you stick around longer
There’s a light here. Here’s what another study found:
- What real research discovered: Just three months later, a big study from Sweden, with a hundredfold larger sample size than any pet ownership study, found something more encouraging. They analyzed nationwide hospital visits and dog registration data. (Swedish pups are required to be tracked somehow—with a chip or ear tattoo.) Then they controlled for as many confounding variables as possible, including socioeconomic status and lifestyle. They found that owning a pet is associated with a reduced risk of death for the overall population and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease among people who live on their own.
- In English please: People who have dogs live longer, and people who live alone with dogs are less likely to have heart issues. And this is according to a whole bunch of data. Taken over the course of 12 years. On an entire population. Of an entire country.
- Why it matters: The pet-effect might be real after all.
Confused much? Sometimes high-quality studies reach seemingly conflicting conclusions. And there are a whole lot of factors to consider. For example, the first study looked at children. The study in Sweden looked at adults. Could that explain it? Maybe. For now, it’s nice to know that the science behind the health benefits of pets is being taken seriously, even if the ultimate verdict is still out. Who knew that pets were such a controversial topic? Well, now you do.
3. Pets can boost your mood—and lower your stress, too
Even if the verdict is still out on long-term benefits, there are plenty of research-backed short-term benefits of spending time with pets—yours or other people’s. And stress is a big one. Let’s take a look:
- Ice bucket challenge, version 2.0: In a charmingly simple experiment, people were asked to stick their hands in a bucket of ice water with or without the company of their real-life pets.
- People with their pets by their sides had lower baseline heart rate and blood pressure levels, reacted less severely to the ice-pressor, and recovered more quickly than the unlucky people who had to do it alone. And we reacted severely just to the phrase “ice-pressor” so that’s no small feat.
- What about mental stress? The same pattern held true when participants were asked to do mental math exercises.
- Cats and the brain: In other bizarre and informative research, researchers used functional neuroimaging to measure people’s brains while they petted a real cat. (Um, sign us up.)
- They traced a connection between petting the cat and immediate improvements to mood and found that the effect was strongest for females. And now we know that the inferior frontal gyrus is the hot spot for brain activity while cuddling up with a cat.
4. Pets help your social life
You know that guy in your neighborhood with the squishy little lab pup? Yeah, he most likely has more friends than you do. (It’s okay, us too.) One of the most interesting benefits of pets: Your friendship with your animal is probably helping you spark and deepen friendships with humans.
And now for some science:
- The best icebreakers: Pet owners are more likely to get to know their neighbors, according to a study of pet owners in four different cities. The pets serve as an icebreaker to start a conversation, especially for dog owners who might meet people while taking their dogs for walks.
- Think these encounters are arbitrary? Think again. They regularly lead to lasting and supportive friendships. About 40 percent of the pet owners in this study received meaningful social support from someone they had met through their pet.
- This support includes real friend things like letting you borrow something, giving you a ride to the airport, talking about your worries at work, or communicating primarily through memes. (Just us?)
5. Pets might help strengthens kids’ immune systems
…we think. Truth: Trying to make sense of the benefits of pets on the immune system had us in a tailspin. It’s easy to get lost in specific allergens, narrow slices of the population, and jargon. And there are plenty of studies, so a person looking to cherry-pick a single negative or positive effect would have no problem at all. What’s a science-based blog to do?
In these situations, it’s best to look to systematic reviews that comb existing research looking for trends. Here’s what one of the most recent reviews suggested:
- Most experts hypothesize that exposure to microbes from pets is probably good for immune system development in otherwise healthy kids.
- Not convinced by “probably good”? Remember, these experts are trained to be cautious, so that might be about as good of an endorsement as it gets.
Maybe this is one of those benefits of pets that comes down to a question of personal philosophy. If you’re the type of person who likes the idea of toughening up your immune system through contact with real-world microbes, then owning a pet is a fun and well-tested way to do so. Also a great argument for a partner who isn’t convinced. The kids need strong immune systems!
6. Pets are an official treatment for some mental health conditions
In an interesting case of practice coming before research, animals—usually dogs—have been used in a variety of therapy settings for at least a couple decades. The widely-used model is called animal-assisted therapy, meaning that companionship with a pet is added on to the standard treatment. It’s an approach now commonly used for people with autism, schizophrenia, and depression. That’s why you might run into a floppy-eared beagle wandering the halls of the hospital. We aren’t mad about it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, but what does the science say?
- Research about animal-assisted therapy shows consistently positive effects but is noticeably lacking in rigor.
- A 2015 review of the research found that out of over 65,000 published articles, only 8 used strict randomized controlled trials (i.e., the gold standard in medical research).
- Promisingly, those few trials produced positive outcomes for children with autism and adults with psychological disorders.
7. Pets make you move more
This is a fun one. People with pets tend to be more physically active. Why? Dogs, in particular, usually need to take care of business outside. And they need a lot of exercise. Guess who gets to guide them on their active adventures? That’s right—the people who own them. And animals don’t particularly care if it’s sleeting. Or hailing. Or hair-freezingly cold. They have to get out there, which means you do too.
There’s a bunch of interesting research on this, so we won’t get into all of it. Here’s a good one:
- A 2015 systematic review looked at nine studies on the exercise habits of people with dogs to see whether owning a dog helped them reach the CDC’s physical activity recommendations (150 minutes of moderate intensity movement a week).
- The results? Dog owners who walked their pups were 2.5 times more likely to reach the activity recommendations than people who didn’t walk their dogs. Win.
Bonus: There will be more research-backed benefits of pets. Eventually.
Science on the benefits of having pets is changing, so that means this list will too. Some of these benefits might get even more support, while others might be added to the list of benefits we wish were real. Regardless, there is evidence that having a furry friend around positively affects our wellness. And well, maybe you didn’t need science to tell you that after all.
Your turn: Have you experienced any benefits of pets that didn’t make the list? Just looking for an excuse to post your cutest pet pics? Share them in the comments.
If you like this post, you’ll also like The Science of Happiness: How to Focus on Friendship
Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.