Our pets definitely bring us joy—and experts think they also do so much more.

By Hannah Harper
February 27, 2020

The social-support theory

“The reason animals are good for your health is similar to why people are good for your health: social support,” says Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Human relationships alleviate stress and improve our self-esteem; relationships with our pets do the same. Social-support interactions trigger a release of oxytocin and a decrease in cortisol, the mechanisms in relaxation. “Our brains interpret [human and pet] relationships in the same way, and hence appropriate the same hormones,” says Beck.

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Heart health boosters

A recent study has shown that dog owners are more likely than non–dog owners to reach the recommended physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week. “You’re walking for the pet, not just you. It gives you that extra motivation,” says Yvette Johnson-Walker, DVM, PhD, clinical instructor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Veterinary Medicine. In fact, some doctors suggest getting a dog to their patients with cardiovascular issues—moderate-intensity walking is as effective as running in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol.

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Calming touch

Petting a cat has been shown to lower heart rate as well as systolic and diastolic blood pressure, says Dr. Johnson-Walker. And the deeper the bond you have with the animal, the stronger the stress reduction. In a 2016 study comparing volunteers at a cat rescue shelter and cat owners, both parties had decreased indicators of stress, but the owners experienced even greater calming effects.

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A friendly face

Dogs naturally expose us to situations where we are more likely to meet and engage with new people. Whether you bump into another dog walker on the street or start a conversation with someone in your pup’s training class, you immediately have something in common. Pets also allow others to approach us in a non-stressful way: If a stranger walks up to you with no clear reason, that would be threatening, Beck explains. But if the stranger comes over to greet your dog, that’s more acceptable.

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A two-way street

While furry friends boost your health, their health and happiness are equally important. “When pets are being comforted or stroked by their owner, there is a reduction in anxiety and stress for them,” says Dr. Johnson-Walker. This is only true, however, if the pet is at ease with you. There are a few behavioral signs to tell how they really feel. A happy pet will usually have a soft, relaxed body and will touch you freely, like when a cat rubs against your legs or a dog noses your hand. Signs of an unhappy, anxious, or afraid dog? “Their tail might be down or their ears back, and you’ll often notice panting, lip licking, and stress yawning as well,” says Lisa Radosta, DVM, founder of Florida Veterinary Behavior Services. Dr. Radosta recommends the consent test, which involves petting your dog or cat for a few strokes and then pulling away to see if she solicits more attention or walks away from the interaction. If she asks for more, she’s having a good time, too.

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