More and more public health experts are recognizing the health benefits of pet ownership. People have had companion animals for thousands of years—one archaeological site from 12,000 years ago includes the remains of a person accompanied by remains of a dog. Today in the United States there are more than half as many pets as there are people, and around two in three households has at least one pet in residence. Only recently, however, have researchers begun to really understand how and why these pets are making people healthier and happier.
One thing pet ownership is good for is helping boost fitness. Walking the dog is a well-known source of exercise, to the point that veterinarians have had to warn joggers to beware of dragging their dogs faster than their four legs can carry them. However, even walking a a normal pace can help burn calories. Dog owners often have to do this to a certain extent, obviously, but beyond that, dog ownership can provide motivation to get out there, as well as alleviate the boredom that can so often dissuade people from just walking on their own.
Dog walking promotes heart health in other ways as well. Pet owners in general seem to have healthier cholesterol levels than non-owners, one study suggested. Petting a dog or cat has also been shown to lower blood pressure. Pets have a stress-lowering effect by their mere presence, to the point where certain dog breeds are trained as assistance dogs for people with PTSD and anxiety disorders. The unconditional love a dog or cat displays for its human can provide an important boost to self-esteem as well as alleviating loneliness, another way in which animals contribute to heart health. Pet owners who do have heart disease have been found to have higher survival rates.
Increasingly, animals are finding work helping people with chronic conditions, including mental health issues. "Seeing-eye dogs"—guide dogs for the visually impaired—are perhaps the most famous type of service animal, but there are actually a number of conditions for which dogs and other animals can be trained to provide assistance. Dogs have been shown to help with depression, anxiety, fatigue, and even pain.