Humans and animals have a long history together. Evidence of this is found with a 12,000-year-old human skeleton in Israel with a hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup. Our long relationship with companion animals has given rise to a field of study called anthrozoology – the study of human-animal interactions.
“When you see how long we’ve had pets in our lives, and how important they are to us it’s amazing the study is so new,” says Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Researchers have only just begun to explore this wonderful relationship and its health benefits.”
Best-selling author Jeffrey Masson explains in his book, The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving (How dogs have captured our hearts for thousands of years), that the human capacity for love, sympathy, empathy, and compassion may actually have developed as a result of our long association with dogs.
Dr. Ann Berger, a researcher at the National Institute of Health (NIH) Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland says, “The bond between animals and humans is a powerful part of our evolution.”
Dr. James Griffin, a scientist at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development says, “There are health benefits to owning pets in both psychological growth and development and physical health benefits.”
A NIH research study found that when children are asked who they talk to when they’re upset the most common answer is their pet – demonstrating the importance of pets as a source of comfort and developing empathy. Therapists and researchers report that children with autism are sometimes better able to interact with pets, and this may help in their interactions with people.
Some of the largest, most well-designed studies suggest pets can help improve our cardiovascular health. One NIH study involving 421 adults who had suffered heart attacks found dog owners were significantly more likely to be alive a year later than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
Another study looked at 240 married couples. Those who owned a pet were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than those without pets. Pet owners seemed to have milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend.
Several studies found dog owners may get more exercise and other health benefits. One NIH investigation looked at more than 2,000 adults and found dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog. Another NIH study followed more than 2,500 older adults, ages 71-82, for three years. Those who regularly walked their dogs walked faster and longer each week than others who didn’t walk regularly. Older dog walkers had greater mobility inside their homes than others in the study.
Man’s best friend may help you make more human friends too. Several studies found walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps you stay socially connected. Other studies discovered people who have more social relationships tend to live longer and are less likely to show mental and physical declines as they grow older.
Several research teams are examining the benefits of bringing specially trained animals into clinical settings. Animal-assisted therapies are increasingly offered in hospitals and nursing homes nationwide and clinicians who watch patients interact with animals say they clearly see the benefits, including improved mood and reduced anxiety.
Your local animal shelter has the largest selection of mood enhancing, anxiety mitigating companion animals in your community. Isn’t it time you took advantage of the health benefits that comes from adopting a pet?