Pets and Health

By Jessica Campbell, MS, FNTP

I love when health is fun and I honestly wish being healthy was easier on everyone. I’d rather you laugh hysterically than do sit-ups and go hiking in the gorgeous countryside rather than run on an elliptical.

I think one of the most rewarding and fun things you can do for your health is to own a pet. Yes, they are a lot of work and not particularly easy, but the health benefits can far outweigh the extra time and expense.

Somewhere around 60% of households in the USA own a pet, with cats and dogs being the most popular. Fun fact, Idaho has the highest percentage of dog ownership with 58.3% closely followed by Montana with 51.9%. Here’s a scattering of other fun companions:

  • Cats
  • Dogs
  • Horses
  • Fish
  • Guinea pigs
  • Hampsters
  • Birds
  • Chickens
  • Turtles
  • Snakes

They can all offer companionship, give our kids their first taste of responsibility, and improve our immune system and overall health! 


Benefits of Pet Ownership


Exercise and Getting Outside

Dogs and Horses are particularly helpful for exercise. Sometimes it’s easier to exercise for someone else’s sake rather than your own. Dogs and horses require daily movement which encourages us to get moving with them.

As I talked about in this article, exercise doesn’t need to be intense to be beneficial. Simple movements can save your life!


Playfulness

As adults, we tend to give up our silly sides, but humor and playfulness can be incredibly beneficial to our overall health! Cats and dogs have a special tendency to bring out that playful side and encourage us to laugh more often which may be why they are the most common pets. If you’re not ready to get your own pet, try visiting a shelter where you can interact with a few furry friends and reap the rewards without real commitment.

Elizabeth's (my assistant) dog Leo!


Socialization & Managing loneliness and depression

Loneliness is a real problem all around the world, especially during quarantine. For older individuals, pets can give a renewed sense of purpose and meaning which improves mental health. For kids stuck on the screen all day, pets can offer a tangible companion to snuggle. Hugging, holding, and petting an animal can lower the adrenaline levels in a child, and increase oxytocin bringing them out of fight or flight and into the parasympathetic or rest and digest phase. This calms their nerves, improves mood, and slows the heart rate and breathing to a calm rhythm.


Lower blood pressure

As we’ve discussed before, relaxing, laughing, playing, and exercising can all lower our blood pressure. Because pets encourage all of the above activities, we can assume that pets also help lower your blood pressure.


Reduce the risk of childhood obesity and allergies

Research studies show that allergic disease can often be a higher risk in overly hygienic environments. Pets bring with them a variety of dirt and dander. Rather than seeing this as a negative, because of the above studies, we can see that playing with our pets can decrease the chance of allergies and even improve gut health. (More on that below!)

Lunch Time!


I have a deep respect for doctors that work integratively and try holistic measures before rushing to invasive drugs and procedures. One, in particular, is Dr. Daphne Miller who wrote the book Farmacology in which she explains her first recommendation for allergy and asthma sufferers. Dr. Miller will ask a patient to visit a farm, step in the dirt, and touch the animals because the research shows that children raised on farms have fewer allergies, hay fever, and asthma. 

The research coincides with the hygiene hypothesis in that too much sterilization can be less beneficial in the gut microbiome and immune system. We know this as the 3-second rule. You know it’s what you say when you drop a treat on the ground and you still want to eat it even though someone is watching. It’s Ok, we need exposure to our environment to build antibodies and resiliency to it.  

In a large study of 746 infants 3-4 months old, they found that early exposure to pets could reduce the risk of metabolic and atopic diseases or in simple terms less obesity and allergies. This is so exciting because sometimes we can’t take all the steps we hope to in life. We know that vaginal births and breastfeeding are the two most important factors in a baby’s immune health, but some circumstances may make these impossible outcomes. Now we know that introducing a loving pet may help recover some immune health in these babies. What a blessing!


A Few Things to Consider

As a pet owner myself who has raised feral cats, dogs, and chickens, I feel obligated to leave you with a few words of advice. I do believe the health benefits outweigh the risks of owning a pet, but it is not an easy decision. If you have never owned a pet, please consider visiting a shelter, caring for a neighbor’s pet for a weekend, or fostering first. 

Pets are not for everyone.

Animals are very needy like children and need your full attention. Consider researching how long the animal will live and how much it will cost to feed and care for them throughout their lifetime. Although I hope each one of you can adopt an animal, I would be broken-hearted to find someone who didn’t think it through, got a pet, and then had to move it around from home to home. This is very hard on animals and has a very negative effect on their behavior. 

I love dogs and have had many, but I tried to foster one with the birth of my second baby and we were not ready. My babies loved her, but the dog got out, was lost for days, got pregnant before we could get her fixed, and I was a postpartum disaster case. We waited a year and then decided chickens were a better level of commitment for our lifestyle.


I hope you do your research and find a friend, or if you do have pets already, please share!

I would love to see your cute faces fill up my social media post. I love all animals and seeing you with them would make my day. 

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Want to learn more about how your immune system works? Watch my immune resiliency talk HERE.