Research Shows that Your Pet Will Help You Live Longer
Here, Fido! Come here! It’s time to help your owner…live longer? It’s true: according to the American Heart Association, pets can reduce stress and improve your mental health, helping you live a longer and happier life.
Whether you love cats, dogs or more unusual pets, it might be time to whip out the extra special treats. Your pet has a measurable, positive effect on your lifespan. Just remember that next time Lady Paw-Paw chews your Jimmy Choos or Chairman Meow pushes your bowling trophy off the mantel.
Science says: get that pet
On the fence about whether you should get a pet? Science says that you should go for it. “Looking at data from studies between 1950 and May 2019, [researchers] found that dog owners live longer than those without a dog. The benefit was greatest for those who had a history of heart attack and there was a 65 percent reduced risk of mortality.”
Not a dog person? Not to worry. Just about any pet can give you the same sense of emotional interaction and responsibility. Even houseplants can do it: “Ground-breaking research in the late 1970s by psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin found that just having to care for a houseplant kept elderly nursing home residents happier and alive longer.” (Great news for anyone allergic to pets.) Oddly enough, robotic pets have also provided the same benefits, based on research in Japan, Sweden, the United States, Denmark and Italy. Some nursing homes use Paro, a fuzzy robotic seal, to keep the residents happier—and it works.
Playing with pets raises your oxytocin and dopamine levels, those feel-good chemicals that activate your brain’s reward center and encourage bonding. People with pets experience lower blood pressure levels, and are less likely to develop heart disease. They also have lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
Pets are also associated with better physical health, at least if you own a dog. (Some cats will also deign to be walked on a harness, but that usually involves training them early.) When you regularly walk and play with your pet, you’re getting more physical activity than you might have otherwise.
Why do we love our pets so much?
One of the biggest reasons pets help you live longer is because we love them so much—but why? While yes, your pet may in fact be the cutest and most exemplary representative of their species, plenty of scientists have weighed in with their own theories.
First, there could be an evolutionary reason. Edward O. Wilson argued that humans love animals because “in early hominid history, there was a distinct survival advantage to observing and remaining close to other animals living in nature. The existence of other species thriving within an environment was consistent with the availability of essential life-sustaining elements (such as fresh water and edible vegetation).” That could explain why animals have such a positive effect on our mood: we’re programmed to want to be around other thriving living creatures.
Psychologists have other ideas. First, humans have long bred dogs and cats for features considered “cute,” like big eyes and floppy ears. Because pets typically require infant-like care for their entire lives, all that cuteness may trigger our “subconscious nurturing instincts.”
Validation is another key factor. Because our pets can’t necessarily take care of themselves, we feel like they need us—and that’s a very validating feeling. Many pet owners feel like their pet’s love for them is unconditional, whether you have an enthusiastic, drooling dog or a wary cat who likes to curl up on your shoulder at night. Caring for an animal who seems to love you right back (even when you’ve worn the same sweatpants for a week at a time) can triggers those protective, nurturing instincts, and in turn, the health-friendly benefits of pet ownership.
What if I can’t have a pet?
Sometimes pet ownership just isn’t in the cards, whether budget, living situation or allergies prevent it. While some hypoallergenic pets exist, there are other ways you can get that dopamine and oxytocin fix. We’ve already mentioned houseplants and robotic animals—but if you want to maximize those feel-good hormones, look for activities that foster connections with other people or animals. Volunteering at an animal shelter, at a nursing home, with children’s organizations and more can help you feel close to other people.
Depending on your specific pet, you might have just as many frustrating moments as Insta-worthy ones, but one thing is for sure: when you own a pet, you’re setting yourself up for a longer, happier life.