If there was ever a doubt about the value of the human-animal bond, COVID-19 revealed its power. During quarantine in the spring of 2020, thousands of Americans stopped by shelters and pet stores to acquire a household companion — or two. Soon there was a dearth of available adoptable animals, as approximately 60% of U.S. households became pet owners.
“Two out of three dog owners consider their dog their best friend,” says Mark Cushing, founder and CEO of the Animal Policy Group and author of the newly released book, Pet Nation. He adds that household pets provide unequivocal health benefits as well as companionship. Here are a few recent statistics from Pet Nation:
• A MARS Petcare report found that nearly 90% of pet owners said they received important health benefits from their companion animals.
• A Washington State University study discovered that 50% of new pet owners reported a strengthened sense of purpose when they spent time with their pets during the pandemic.
•A study from Great Britain revealed that 72% of pet owners stayed more active because of their pets during quarantine.
Cushing says that people with pets are more likely to interact with others and are less lonely. He adds that pet owners are also “significantly more likely than non-pet owners to report that they were in ‘good’ or ‘very good’ health.
“An extensive number of studies in a wide range of journals and disciplines support that interactions with pets contribute to good health and quality of life and healing from serious illnesses,” says Dr. Maria Iliopoulou, a graduate of the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine who has extensively studied the human-animal bond.
“Pets can influence our emotional state, our sense of security and acceptance, and even our positive outlook on life,” she continues. “It has been documented that grieving children and adults turn to their pets for comfort and that pet ownership eases the symptoms of the owner’s depression and anxiety. Dog owners, for example, feel safer and less vulnerable to crime.”
There’s a an epidemic of loneliness among older people, but numerous studies have shown that nursing home residents react with smiles, a sense of joy, and more interaction with others when pets are present.
“As humans, we have the need to have a purpose and feel needed,” says Iliopoulou. “For people living alone and the elderly, pets can help them feel needed and give them a reason for living.”
Pets can help professionally, too. According to the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine, the presence of service dogs in courtrooms helps put children and adult abuse victims at ease so they can testify without fear and anxiety. Children who have pets develop more empathy and higher self-esteem because they tend to participate in more social activities.
“The evidence is compelling and documented,” says Cushing. “Animal-assisted therapy with dogs produces objective health changes in people of all ages, from children to seniors, with reductions in measures of cardiovascular stress, improvements in neurophysiological stress markers such as cortisol and endorphin levels, and the enhancement of immune factors.”
Ultimately, the health benefits are mutual.
“The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors essential to the health and well-being of both,” says Iliopoulou. “The majority of pet owners today consider their pets to be family members. Thus, pets receive preventive care and veterinary care, they feel loved and safe.”
The expert adds that she receives the gifts of empathy and compassion from her dogs, the examples of self-care and gratitude from her cats, and lessons in freedom and companionship from her doves and canaries.
“In a world where we are bombarded with messages of negativity, greed, and deceit, interacting with animals gives me faith that I can be the change I want to see in this world,” Iliopoulou concludes.
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