Having a Pet Can Improve Your Health and Happiness

Deborah Y. Strauss DVMIf you’ve ever owned a pet, you already know how much fun and affection they can bring.

Sure, they can destroy your things, they can cost a lot of money, and they will even hog the bed (if you let them). But, if you’re among the millions of pet owners across the country, you just can’t imagine life without your beloved dog, cat or other animal companion.

Why are we so determined to make these creatures part of the family? Probably because of the incredible health and happiness benefits that they offer us.

Children with pets at home have significantly higher scores on scales for empathy and social skills. This is because they learn from a young age that all living creatures have similar needs. Love, comfort, food, and shelter are needs that we have in common and recognizing this allows children to relate to their furry friends. Taking care of a pet also helps teach children to see things from other perspectives. It shows the importance of being caring and compassionate.

Studies have linked family ownership of a pet with higher self-esteem and greater cognitive development in young children. Perhaps this is because having a pet makes us feel needed. Or maybe it has to do with the unconditional love that they shower us with, or the fact that they’re completely nonjudgmental about our lifestyles.

Deborah Y. Strauss DVM

Owning a lively pet may sometimes prove exasperating, but it appears all the effort is worth it. Whether you’re tossing a tennis ball at the dog park or dancing around the living room with a feather toy and your cat, you’re moving around — and that means burning calories, getting your heart rate up and scoring a mood raising energy boost provided by quick bursts of exercise.

Even if all you do is walk your dog down the sidewalk and back, the exercise adds up over time. “Dog owners walk 79 percent farther each day than people who don’t have a dog,” says David Niven, Ph.D., a psychologist, social scientist and author of 100 Simple Secrets Why Dogs Make Us Happy. Walking your dog may not be as intense as going to the gym and taking a zumba class, but you sure are working off more calories than you would if you spent your evening at home.

Much of the profound effect that pets have on our health, learning skills, and emotional development is because they are not “just pets” but they are non-judgmental, unconditional, loving members of our families.

Child development specialist Dr. Gail F. Melson sums it up best: “Whenever I ask children and parents if their pets are truly part of the family, most of them seem surprised—and almost offended—at the question,” Dr. Melson says. The most common response: “Of course they are!”