Why animals are good for your health

(c) Dr David R Hamilton – David with Daisy

I have a new family member – a 14-week-old puppy named, Daisy. In the spirit of how much she has added to my life already, I thought I’d share some health insights and scientific research on how animals benefit our mental and physical health.

When I first began writing this blog, I originally had ‘dogs’ in the title place of animals, but I shortly discovered that many of the studies applied equally well to any animals that we develop a bond with. 

So here’s 5 reasons why animals are good for your health, with accompanying scientific research where available to back them up, plus a few extra specific benefits at the end (for children with autism spectrum disorder and children at risk of developing allergies).

1) Animals are good for the heart

Several studies have found that pet ownership decreases blood pressure. This may be due in part to the effects of oxytocin, which as well as being a reproductive hormone is also a cardioprotective hormone – that is, it helps protects the cardiovascular system. Affectionate and playful interactions generate oxytocin – the bonding hormone (I also call it the kindness hormone in my books on kindness). 

A study published in the leading journal, Science, found that 30 minutes of such interaction between humans and dogs elevated oxytocin levels by over 300% in humans and by around 150% in dogs. This may part-explain a study that found that the risk of a second heart attack within one year of a first was around significantly less in dog owners. In the study of around 400 people, only one dog owner (from 87) died within the year compared with 19 (from 282) who did not have a dog.

And one study of almost 4,000 healthy adults found that having a dog or a cat significantly reduced the risk of death from stroke or cardiovascular disease, with the effects stronger in women than in men, and with cats rather than dogs. The researchers suggested that the benefits were less likely to have come from physical exercise, but from the stress-relieving effects of having an animal companion.

2) Animals are good for mental health

Animals are companions to us. They bond with us and give us comfort. They help many people feel connected where their circumstances might otherwise leave them feeling alone. 

Studies have shown that the COVID-19 pandemic increased feelings of loneliness, and especially in older adults (defined as over 60 years old), yet, a study of 466 older adults found that daily dog walks counteracted the effects.

Therapy dogs also make regular visits to hospitals, care homes and hospices and they help lift the spirits of the patients they visit. Some people even find comfort in watching fish swim in a large tank. 

3) Dogs give you exercise

Daily dog walks are an excellent source of exercise. I remember when I had my dog, Oscar (who passed away in 2014), I lost 4 kilos (9 pounds) in weight over a few months through walking about 20-25 miles a week. 

Playful interaction around the home also reduces the likelihood of sitting around too much, improving circulation and also providing some regular short-form exercise.

Multiple research studies have now confirmed that dog owners are significantly more likely to meet recommended levels of daily exercise than the general population, with some studies suggesting dog owners get almost double the amount of exercise than non dog owners.

ps: for the record: although many studies refer to dog or pet ‘ownership’, I see sharing our lives with animals as a privilege. They are family members and not animals that we own. However, in the interest of sharing the scientific study data as it is presented, I have occasionally used those terms here.

4) They make us laugh

I have laughed out loud every day since Daisy arrived in our lives. Her playful puppy antics are a constant source of entertainment. 

Until she arrived, I hadn’t realised how serious I could be all the time as I sit at my desk writing, researching, studying, or responding to emails. And when I’m not doing those things, I’d be talking about them in the home. But Daisy has short-circuited the seriousness and introduced play in its place.

I fondly recall several years ago when Oscar taught me a lesson in not taking things so seriously. He wanted to play but I was using my laptop on the sofa, determined to finish one more email. So he jumped up and pushed it right out of my lap onto the floor. The screen broke when it landed, but I ended up laughing because his tale was wagging so strongly that it was slapping me on the side of the head.

5) They remind us to live for the moment

Dogs don’t ruminate over the past nor worry about the future. They’re just here, now, responding to whatever the moment brings. They can be such a welcome reminder as they shine a light on how us humans don’t do that. 

We spend large amounts of our mental time in the past or future. Yet it’s the present that best serves our mental and physical health.

Towards the end of his life, Oscar had a hind leg amputated. He had bone cancer (osteosarcoma) and we had tried everything to save him. Amputation was the last resort. We were traumatised by it, and especially when we had to hold a towel around his hind region in the middle of the night to help him balance when he was emerging from the effects of the anaesthetic! But when he came around, he hardly noticed. Truly. 

Next morning, he had a look at the space where his leg had been, had a wee sniff, then got up and went to the garden to pee. He then picked up his ball, enthusiastically presented it to me and we then played together in the garden for the next while. He just got on with being himself. It was so enlightening.

Most of us humans would naturally dwell on what had happened and how it will affect our lives. Dogs just get on with it. Of course, this is not to take anything away from human suffering following traumatic events, only to perhaps point us towards the way dogs handle things.

Other benefits

There are some many other, more specific benefits of having animals in our lives. Here’s a few examples. 

In a study of children with autism spectrum disorder, just playing with guinea pigs in their classroom for ten minutes caused a reduction in anxiety and improved their social interactions.

When researchers compared the childrens’ ANS activity (as measure of anxiety) in four conditions: a) reading silently, b) reading aloud in the classroom, c) free play with children and toys, and d) free play with children and guinea pigs, there was increased ANS activity in the children in the first three conditions, but 43% decreased ANS activity in the presence of the animals.

Animals may even reduce the likelihood of allergies in young children at higher risk of developing allergies. A study of over 400 such children living in inner city environments, found that allergens from pets (dust, hair, bacteria, etc) had a protective effect for them and reduced their likelihood of developing asthma by 7 years of age.

Other supporting research has pointed toward a wide spectrum of bacteria in dirt brought into the home by dogs on their paws that helps protect against allergies.

There are plenty more reasons why animals are good for our health, but in the interests of keeping this a relatively short read, I thought I’d stop it here and perhaps consider listing some other reasons in another blog sometime.

Wherever you are today, be kind. It’s almost always the right thing to do. And try to extend that kindness to animals as well as humans.

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  1. Garry Crosbie on February 24, 2022 at 10:31 am

    We have a 14 week old cocker spaniel puppy too!
    Your observations are identical to ours !
    They are always “in the moment” and having fun.
    I’m retired but this is much healthier than a gym membership!!

    • David Hamilton on February 24, 2022 at 2:15 pm

      Aw, I hope you have so much fun, Gary, and many happy (and healthy) years ahead. 🙂

  2. Helen Moffat on February 24, 2022 at 10:53 am

    I am so enjoying your daily emails. I have recently found myself having to leave my home and live with a family member. A major situation in my life has caused this and I really have been struggling but reading your emails have really been helping me. So thank you David and I will be kind.

    • David Hamilton on March 3, 2022 at 10:48 am

      I’m sorry to hear that things have been tough for you, Helen. It’s nice to know that my daily emails have been some help. Yes, keep up the kindness. 🙂

  3. Sue Creaton on February 24, 2022 at 11:35 am

    Thank you for sharing your joy at having Daisy in your life. I also have a 14 week old puppy in my life now and although it can be exhausting it is so much better being able to share life with a four legged creature. Enjoy Daisy and may she be with you for many years to come.

  4. Cindy LEGORRETA on February 24, 2022 at 12:48 pm

    Hi from New Orleans. I am 74; hubby and I came down from NYC where I had lived for nearly seven decades. We always had cats and dearly loved their elegance, spontaneous joy, and beauty. They comforted us, and through the years our home was blest to have them. Now, we live in a landmark building, four floors up – with unscreened windows. Not safe for pets and these antique frames don’t adapt to conventional screens. So, I used my great love for cats — to get 11 more! That’s right. We now look after a community colony not far from the house. They are an assorted, ever fascinating bunch – different as snowflakes, and yes….all of them sport TNR ear clips. The ten minute drive out there is refreshing, a change of scene…. and it keeps us moving. One of the local rescues donates high quality protein dry food, which we supplement with fresh water and canned as well. A neighbor who lives near the colony comes in as well, making sure their water is fresh. And a THIRD person looks in, too. So, it turns out: We are 1)making friends, 2) getting major ‘feel good vibes” for ourselves, and 3) doing some real good in our community 4) staying physically and mentally active. Not a bad list, eh? I urge anyone who, for whatever the reason cannot have a pet, but loves animals – get involved at your local shelter, volunteer feed as we do, pet sit, or whatever feels right for you. The benefits are enormous…Meow from Gretna.

    • David Hamilton on February 24, 2022 at 2:16 pm

      That’s so wonderful, Cindy. Thanks for sharing your amazing work. I hope it helps inspire others to do the same. 🙂

  5. Anita Martin on February 24, 2022 at 3:05 pm

    I love reading your newsletters and daily inspirations David.

    I so relate to you with Daisy as Bailey changed my life when he came into it nearly 3 years ago. He is a lhasa/Poo and looks similar to Daisy.
    What a joy they give us and the benefits are huge as you say.

  6. Anita Martin on February 24, 2022 at 3:07 pm

    I love reading your newsletters and daily inspirations David and am so pleased to see how much Daisy is feeding your life, just as Bailey does mine 🙂

    • David Hamilton on March 1, 2022 at 1:49 pm

      Aw, thanks Anita. It’s so great that Bailey is enriching your life too. 🙂

  7. Lea on February 24, 2022 at 4:23 pm

    Daisy is adorable!! Congratulations on your new family member. Pets are a precious gift, aren’t they? Right now, we are pet-less because of circumstances, but we would love a dog and/or cat to love. Hopefully that day will come sooner than later. Enjoy your sweet girl, I know you will. Please give her a hug from me.

    • David Hamilton on March 3, 2022 at 10:47 am

      Aw, thanks so much Gail. Yes, they are such a precious gift. 🙂

  8. Gail Grau on February 24, 2022 at 6:26 pm

    I’m enjoying your newsletters. I joined after I read your book Why Woo-Woo Works, which was very good. I’m hoping our local book group will use it as a book selection soon. I appreciate that you link scientific studies to woo woo topics – hopefully another way for people to “get” woo woo.
    Thanks goodness we have animal companions. Somewhere I’ve read that animals and nature are here to be “balancers.” This world certainly needs balance!
    Maybe you could also say “Wherever you are today, be kind. It’s almost always the dog thing to do.”

    • David Hamilton on March 3, 2022 at 10:46 am

      Thanks so much. That’s so nice to hear. I can relate to that idea of balancers. Oh, and I love that idea – ‘almost always the dog thing to do’. I wish I’d thought of that for the end of my article. 🙂

  9. Rosemary Oloughlin on February 26, 2022 at 9:43 pm

    Hello David . Your daily inspiration has been a life saver for me over the past number of months. My life circumstances have changed dramatically since 2019 and being isolated with covid 19 has heightened the feelings of lonliness and seperation. Many times I felt you kind words were for me personally as they seemed so appropiate to the moment. I did attempt to reply but that was not possible. Tonight, spotting you article on ” why animals are good for your health ” has broken the silence for me . Thanks to your DAISY who coincidently is slso the name of my daughter’s dog. But of course we know there are no coincidences . I love animals but alas they also hsve been absent from my life . Like one of you readers comments , getting involved with an animal rescue cenre may be the answer for me.. It is aspark that has been ignited. Thank you David , your light and kindness shines through all your daily inspirations.

    • David Hamilton on March 3, 2022 at 10:45 am

      Thanks for your kind words, Rosemary. I’m so pleased to hear that my daily inspiration emails have been so helpful for you. Lovely that Daisy is also the name of your daughter’s dog. 🙂 Yes, perhaps getting involved with an animal rescue centre may be just the tonic you need. 🙂

  10. Claire on February 28, 2022 at 9:50 am

    Though I grew up with many animals on a farm, raising my own family in a city apartment on the 3rd floor, I was reluctant to have an animal that had to live indoors. That changed when my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 9 and from that day on had to have 4 injections for life. While she coped well, there would be days where it was just all too much and so we decided to get a cat. It was a significant turning point. The exchange of love and the intervention in arresting her spiraling emotions was like watching a miracle unfold, and it’s one that is worth all and any inconvenience to the household, for children especially to have a warm, loving animal, whether it’s a cat or dog to connect with. They provide the opportunity for healing all kinds of hurts and filling the body/mind with good feelings. Thank you for sharing these benefits, just magic.

    • David Hamilton on March 3, 2022 at 10:42 am

      That’s so wonderful, Claire. What an amazing benefit your cat had on your daughter. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience.

  11. Belinda Johnston on March 3, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    Wow…thank you David for a very good summary of this field. It is lovely to read that Daisy has introduce such positive energy and joy. I am sorry to hear about Oscar’s osteosarcoma but your description of his post op attitude is a brilliant example of how they can respond very differently to us. I set up a charity (Our Special Friends) which started 10 years ago, it is all about the power of animal companionship. We have identified a new role of an ‘animal companionship practitioner’ and a range of animal companionship support services for people and animals in need of care and support in our local communities; to bridge the divide between the human and animal clinical expertise. It has been a long journey and I love reading well written articles like yours which translate the importance and magical outcomes of these very special relationships. My dog Tasha, was very special and also had a malignant cancer later in life (and surgery). As a vet I am acutely aware of these decisions and journeys that people take and the more we can support these relationships, the better. Thank you.

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