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Everyone loves pets, even if they do not own one themselves. A dog’s wagging tail is all but guaranteed to make complete strangers smile, and few people can resist the urge to cuddle with a cut kitten. Pets are known for giving their unconditional love to their owners, but they can also improve a person’s health. Here are six health benefits of owning a pet.

Increased Exercise

Owning a pet can force a person to get more exercise. Dogs are the most common example of this phenomenon because dogs need to be walked. Taking a dog for a walk is an easy and enjoyable way for people to get more exercise. In fact, some people who help those suffering from extreme obesity recommend that their patients get a dog. Taking care of the canine will compel the obese person to get at least 10 minutes of exercise twice a day. The care of large animals, such as horses, also more or less requires a person to exercise.

Dogs force their owners to get exercise more than almost any other pet, but even low maintenance pets can do a good job of getting their owners off the couch. Playful cats can get a person moving for a number of reasons. The person may get up to play with their feline friend, or the unfortunate biped may be scrambling around the room trying to corral a four legged fur ball before it knocks anything else off the shelves. Anyone who has ever turned their back on a particularly energetic cat knows that “curiosity killed the cat” has a lot of truth to it. 

Reptilian and avian escape artists can also get a person moving. Coming home and finding the terrarium empty is a nightmare for a person who owns a lizard or snake largely because the animal could be hiding absolutely anywhere. Turning the house upside down on a regular basis searching for a reptile can involve a surprising amount of exercise. Trying to catch a lightning fast lizard or repeatedly having to uncoil a stubborn snake from a curtain rod can get a person’s heart working overtime. 

Birds are not the excellent camouflage artists that reptiles are and are less naturally inclined to emulating Houdini. Snakes, after all, are famous for being able to squeeze through absolutely minuscule spaces, and any tarantula owner knows to keep a terrarium locked up tight unless they want to be awakened in the middle of the night by a massive spider trying to use their breath to keep warm. Birds are, however, generally more intelligent than their reptilian or arachnid counterparts. Birds can learn to open their cage. While they will not be able to hide in plain sight like a snake, attempting to catch a bird is an exercise in futility. Most children attempt to catch a robin at least once. Think back to how well that attempt went, and know that adult attempts rarely do better. Now imagine how much exercise would be required to force a stubborn macaw back in its cage.

Alleviate Anxiety and Depression

Companion animals are known to help sufferers of anxiety, depression, PTSD and other mental illnesses manage their symptoms. Many people who are hospitalized for a long period of time find that their mood improves after spending time with a therapy animal. In fact, petting an animal has been shown to increase levels of the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol. 

Perhaps the most visible examples of pets helping a person deal with mental illness are PTSD service dogs. These animals accompany their owners everywhere and are commonly matched with military veterans suffering from combat-related PTSD. There are hundreds of stories about how PTSD dogs have saved the lives of suicidal veterans. Organizations have sprung up across the country to deal with the epidemic of untreated PTSD such as K9’s For Warriors which trains dogs rescued from kill-shelters to serve as PTSD service dogs for veterans.

Interpersonal Relationships

Few things are guaranteed to start a conversation more than a cute animal. Anyone who has ever tried to walk down the street with a Golden Retriever or left a friendly kitten out of its crate during a house party knows that everyone and their mother will want to pet the dog or hold the cat. Human beings in general are obsessed with other people’s companion animals. Many people will sit and look at pictures of a friend’s puppy longer than they will pictures of a friend’s infant. Owning a pet takes advantage of that overwhelmingly common desire to be near a cute animal. Pets are a conversation starter, an easy way to relate to other pet owners and are guaranteed to give their owners a few funny stories to tell during awkward silences at work cocktail parties. Going outside with a pet also all but guarantees that the pet’s owner will be surrounded by people wanting to chat. There really is some truth to the old advice that says the surest way to meet people in a new city is to get a dog. 

Lower Risk of Heart Disease

According to the American Heart Association, owning a pet can lower a person’s risk of heart disease. Pets increase a person’s amount of daily exercise especially if a person owns a dog. A companion animal also helps people deal with stress and can help a person keep their blood pressure at healthy levels. Pets are also associated with lower cholesterol levels which helps decrease the likelihood of heart disease. 

Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the Western World. Lowering the risk of heart disease is sometimes seen as being interchangeable with a longer life, and people who use the two interchangeably are not entirely wrong. A lower likelihood of a heart attack often correlates to a longer lifespan, but a healthy heart does not guarantee a long life. That said, their lower risks of heart disease could be one of the reasons that pets owners are known to live longer than people who do not own pets.

Fewer Allergies in Children

For decades, people believed that exposing children to pet dander and fur would increase the likelihood that those children would become allergic to pets. The opposite is actually true. Research shows that infants who live in a house that contains a cat or dog during their first year of life are less likely to develop pet allergies. There are, naturally, issues and challenges that come with having both a pet and a needy infant in the house, but fear of allergies is no reason to kick the dog out of the house until the baby is grown.

Pain Relief and Better Bone Density

In a scientific twist that sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, pets can help a person find relief from chronic pain. Petting an animal lowers the levels of a person’s stress hormones and can help them relax. This relaxation alone can help a person get some relief from chronic pain as muscles stop pulling on sore joints or as the person is able to relax enough to get some sleep.

Nearly any pet can help a person relax, but cats take home the prize for pain relief abilities. When cats purr, they produce vibrations with a wavelength of 20 to 140 Hz which is known to have multiple health benefits. Cats’ purrs can lower pain, help a person breathe and even increase a person’s bone density. These furry little healers’ purrs also speed up the wound healing process, so owners of happy cats tend to heal faster.

There are many health benefits that come with owning a pet, but by no means should a pet be either purchased or treated like a form of medication. A pet is a serious commitment, and the decision to add a four legged friend to the family should be thought through carefully. If a person is certain they are ready to put the time and energy into carrying for an animal, however, they will not only enjoy some health benefits but receive the sort of unconditional love that most people only ever dream of finding. 

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