Today marks an auspicious day for February: it’s National Love Your Pet Day. While loving your pet should arguably be an everyday occurrence, lavishing your fur-child or animal companion can actually help your health and your recovery. Here are some reasons that having a pet ups your overall health and wellness, and can aid your recovery process.

Pets Help Us Live Longer

 The National Institute of Health estimates that 68% of American households have at least one pet. And in 2019, the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes published a study that found people who own dogs had a 24% risk reduction for death from any cause. That number increased for people at risk for heart disease (a common result of substance abuse).

The American Heart Association recommends that people complete moderate exercise for at least 150 minutes each week to maintain or improve heart health. Walking a dog for 20-30 minutes each day meets that exercise minimum, helping people strengthen their hearts and reduce their risk of heart disease.

Pets Reduce Our Stress

But dogs aren’t the only pets that improve health. Multiple studies have shown that interacting with any animal including cats, guinea pigs, fish, horses, and rabbits reduces cortisol levels (that hormone partly responsible for controlling stress levels). A 2017 study also confirmed that interacting with animals dogs in particular raises levels of oxytocin (the hormone associated with feelings of love and well-being).

Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who runs the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri, spoke about the important of oxytocin in our bodies’ abilities to recover. “Oxytocin has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells, so it predisposes us to an environment in our own bodies where we can be healthier,” she told NPR.

Pets Help Us Heal

Pets’ power also extends past general stress reduction. Research increasingly shows that interacting with, talking to or taking care of pets can help people dealing with various diseases or behavioral issues including ADHD, dementia, depression, PTSD, and Parkinson’s Disease. For instance, take the 2016 study which found that simply caring for crickets decreased levels of depression in a group of elderly adults.

Grooming and riding horses has been shown to help reduce PTSD symptoms in children and adults. It also helps children dealing with autism and other developmental disorders through the horses’ relationship to them. Talking to dogs makes reading easier for children who have dyslexia, speech impediments or anxiety about reading aloud. Even owning a fish can help train and reset your brain. One paper examined how when patients with Alzheimer’s Disease ate dinner in front of a fish tank, they ate more and were less likely to pace or forget what they were doing.

What Now?

You don’t need to rush out and adopt a pet, if you don’t already have one. Pet ownership is a serious responsibility, no matter the animal. Make sure you’re in a place where you can provide them the quality of life they deserve.

But if you don’t own a pet, you can still experience the benefits animals offer. Volunteering at rescue organizations, shelters or therapeutic groups like therapeutic horseback riding groups or dog-training groups – is a great way to receive animals’ health benefits. Plus, it’ll keep you busy and engaged during your recovery process. And if you do own a pet, give them a little extra loving today. They might be helping you more than you even realize.

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