A rare silver lining emerged during the coronavirus pandemic as people stuck at home sought animal companionship through foster care or pet adoption. Their instincts to shelter in place with a dog or cat were right on target because in times of stress pets offer people emotional and social support.
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For older adults, pets are a buffer against loneliness and isolation, but the benefits go beyond boosting human spirits. A growing body of evidence suggests our four-legged friends improve our health, too.
“When you give a pet love, you get unconditional love back,” says Jean Shafiroff, national spokesperson for the American Humane and owner of Rosita, a mix rescue dog. “It’s a very therapeutic bond.”
Biologist and public health researcher Erika Friedmann has been studying just how therapeutic that bond is. Her research with colleagues was among the first to document the health benefits of pet ownership 40 years ago. That research found that people who had a heart attack and owned a pet were more likely to be alive a year later than those without a pet. Among the 39 patients without pets, 11 (28%) had died compared to only three (6%) of the 53 pet owners.
Now a professor and associate dean for research at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, Friedmann was the lead author for a scientific paper published in 2018 that found dog owners adopt healthier lifestyles, including getting enough exercise and sleep. “Having a dog gives a person a reason to exercise and thus improves cardiovascular health,” the paper says.
Research also has shown that bonding with a pet can produce oxytocin and prolactin, the same hormones that women secrete when their baby is breastfeeding. In 2015, Science reported that humans bond when they gaze into one another’s eyes, and a similar bonding takes place between dogs and their owners.
Says psychiatrist Gregory Fricchione, who was not involved in the research: “Dogs have the ability to increase oxytocin in their owners.” Oxytocin, he adds, is an anti-stress hormone. “In and of itself, it’s likely to be health promoting.” He is director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and a faculty member of Harvard Medical School.
Other studies have linked pet ownership with decreased blood pressure, slightly lower overall blood cholesterol levels and general calming benefits, although more research could determine whether pets reduce anxiety or even depression in people.
For some pet owners, no research is needed. They already believe their four-legged pals enrich their lives. When Susan Feldman, 71, and her husband Marc Labadie, 72, who live in Portland, Ore., first met, they had three dogs between them.
“You can really meet a lot of people through dogs,” she says. “It’s very social.” Of the two rescue dogs, Stella, 16, and Mack, 9, that the couple has now, Feldman says, “They’re just fun to be around.”
There are also health risks associated with pets. Although they are unlikely to spread COVID-19, pets can pass on other diseases to people.
“Handwashing is more important than ever now after touching, feeding or caring for your animals,” says Casey Barton Behravesh, director of One Health Office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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Owning a pet isn’t cheap. Pet adoption typically ranges from $75 to $250 depending on the animal and its age. A pure-bred cat from a reputable breeder can cost between $300 and $1,500, according to the Cat Fanciers’ Association. The average initial cost of purchasing or adopting a dog, including spaying or neutering, is even higher—$2,127—says the American Kennel Association. Thereafter, annual expenses average $2,489