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Human Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

By

Mariko Yamamoto

, PhD, Department of Animal Sciences, Faculty of Life and Environmental Sciences, Teikyo University of Science;


Lynette A. Hart

, PhD, Department of Population Health and Reproduction, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis

Medically Reviewed Jan 2022 | Modified Nov 2022
Topic Resources

Animal companionship both relaxes and entertains people. Pets can provide social support and status. In coming to know their clients, veterinarians can assess the importance of the pet to a family and the extent to which the family members benefit from the potential psychosocial effects of living with an animal. The pet’s contribution may be magnified for vulnerable people, such as older adults who are facing increasing disabilities and losses of close companions and family. During stressful periods in people’s lives, many studies have reported, pets offer meaningful comfort that protects against depression and loneliness. Some studies have shown that living or interacting with animals can increase the resilience of owners or people who interact with the animals.

Similar comforting effects of animal companions, whether cats or dogs, in warding off depression have been reported for patients with Alzheimer disease. The same is true for individuals with AIDS who have a companion animal and have shrinking social lives. Older people experiencing typical life stresses are less affected (as measured by number of medical visits) when they have a companion dog, suggesting that a dog can be a stress buffer that softens the effects of adverse events on the person. Of course, pets require caregiving, and the reciprocal caregiving exchanged with the animal can allow the person to nurture and feel needed, while also feeling nurtured. The animal’s constancy bolsters courage during a person's setbacks because the animal’s affection is unaffected by factors such as the person’s physical capabilities or mood.

Although older people are among the primary beneficiaries of human-animal interaction (HAI), aging can make it difficult for them to continue to provide adequate care for the animal (eg, being able to adequately exercise a dog). Arranging for assistance from family or friends, or providing regular contact with a neighboring animal, can make it possible for people to continue benefiting from contact with an animal, even after they no longer can provide the animal's full-time care.

Companion animals facilitate social interactions with other people and an overall positive social involvement. The socializing effects of dogs have been documented in public settings and among people with a variety of disabilities. A companion animal provides a person who has few friends with an ally in making new human acquaintances, while also creating a richer family environment with enhanced companionship. Even one person with an animal lives in a family unit and is greeted or recognized on arrival home.

The motivating role of animals is a further antidote to depression. Many people are inspired to walk their dogs, volunteer to take animals into nursing homes for visits, or just actively nurture an animal, whereas without the animal they might be less involved and engaged in living, or even depressed. Walking a dog and being outdoors where other social contact arises are two healthful effects of living with a canine companion. Research projects and community programs in many parts of the US and elsewhere are seeking to raise the popularity of dog walking as an approach toward improving human health and decreasing human disease, including diabetes and cardiovascular problems.

The daily comfort, socialization, and relaxing motivation offered by an animal also are associated with cardiovascular benefits. Blood pressure decreases transiently when a person relaxes with, talks to, or just watches an animal. When human patients with increased blood pressure were given medication and randomly assigned pets, patients with pets performed better on stressful tasks, indicating a lower response to stress in this group; however, blood pressure scores did not differ in those with pets and those without.

Several studies have shown that longterm health correlates with animal companionship, even though the animals were not randomly assigned to people but rather were chosen by those people or their families. Cardiovascular measures and even cardiovascular disease mortality were better among pet owners than nonowners in large nationwide studies in some countries, including Sweden, Australia, and China. Whereas other studies in Norway and UK did not show similar results. Various confounding factors of pet ownership make it difficult to gain clear information on how animals affect humans. However, some studies have shown that the manner in which people interact with their animals, such as being attached to the animals and providing care for them rather than simply having them at home, are important factors affecting the benefits from animals.

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