Pets are good for our health, and our doctors’. Here’s why. 

I’ll never forget my first pets. Four goldfish I cleverly named One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish (despite the fact that all of them were yellow) after a favorite Dr. Seuss book. Although it wasn’t long until we were flushing One, Two, Red and Blue down the porcelain highway to the big ocean in the sky, my desire to connect with animals emotionally continues to this day.

Research shows that the human-animal bond is a dynamic relationship that benefits the health and well-being of both the animal and the human. And, it turns out this bond may have even more positive effects for the 71 million Americans who are either pet owners or simply enjoy interacting with animals.

Pets help heart health and human performance

Some studies have found that people who have a pet have healthier hearts, stay home sick less often, make fewer visits to the doctor, get more exercise and are less depressed. Pets also may have a significant impact on allergies, asthma, social support and social interactions with other people. What’s more, engaging with animals — whether that’s horseback riding, feeding ducks or watching fish swim — turns out to be beneficial.

In a 2002 study, researchers measured changes in heart rate and blood pressure among people who had a dog or cat, compared to those who did not, when participants were under stress (performing a timed math task). At the beginning of the experiment, people with a dog or cat had lower resting heart rates and blood pressure measurements than non-pet owners. People with a dog or cat also were less likely to have spikes in heart rates and blood pressure while performing the math task, and their heart rates and blood pressure returned to normal more quickly.

They also made fewer errors in their math when their pet was present in the room. All these findings indicated that having a dog or cat lowered the risk of heart disease, as well as lowering stress so that performance improved.

Cuddling changes our brain chemistry

In Made for Each Other, Meg Olmert’s survey of more than 20 years of work on the biology of the human-animal bond, one neuropeptide stands out: oxytocin, a brain-chemical known to promote maternal care in mammals.

Oxytocin causes a cascade of positive physiological changes. It can slow heart rate and breathing, lower blood pressure and inhibit the production of stress hormones, creating a profound sense of calm, comfort and focus.

Several studies have revealed that just a few minutes of petting an animal prompts a release of “feel-good” hormones in humans, including serotonin, prolactin and that very important oxytocin. In addition, petting our pooches results in decreased levels of the primary stress-hormone cortisol, the adrenal chemical responsible for regulating appetite and cravings for carbohydrates.

It’s not just dogs that are being studied for their therapeutic power. Researchers at the Center for the Human-Animal Bond, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation and the University of Washington, are exploring how the instinctual attraction to nature can help patients with dementia.

For instance, people with Alzheimer’s disease often suffer from weight-loss problems because they’re unable to focus long enough to eat. But, when they sit in front of aquariums with brightly colored fish, the elderly patients are able to pay attention long enough to get their meals down.

Pet therapy is expanding

The depth of this field is still in its infancy. Many pet therapy organizations currently only employ dogs or cats, but the field has grown tremendously, and we are beginning to see the effects other animals can have on a patient.

“An elderly man who trained horses in his youth might benefit enormously from an interaction with a therapy horse team, or an interaction with a social therapy bird might instigate positive engagement from a non-verbal patient,” says Natalie Pond, volunteer engagement and support specialist at Pet Partners. Pet Partners is the largest animal-assisted interactions nonprofit organization in the country.

To become a pet therapist with Pet Partners, pet owners or “handlers” must take a handler’s course, where they are educated on infection control, best practices for visits and a thorough understanding of what it takes to be a responsible handler—both for the client being visited and for the welfare of the animal.

“We register dogs, cats, llamas/alpacas, equines, rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, miniature pigs and birds. Regardless of species, the animal will be evaluated based on rigorous, nationally applied standards,” Pond explains.

We’ve always known that the connection to our animals was strong. As science continues to validate the importance of animals to human health, it might only be a matter of time until pet therapy becomes part of an established patient treatment plan with concrete health objectives.