I love our dog. As most pet owners know, the unconditional love of a furry friend makes life immensely happier. Having a pet, studies show, enhances our physical health as well as our emotional well-being.
In addition to feeling they have more love in their life, pet owners typically have lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems, fewer heart attacks and strokes, less stress, decreased depression, and lower levels of anxiety. And that’s just the beginning of the list of benefits.
It’s a big boost to your mood to come home to a dog who thinks you’re a rock star. When our dog sees us through the window she literally jumps for joy, and greets us with her tail wagging as if we’re the most important people on earth. But does she really love us, or is she just excited about getting a treat?
Dogs actually feel love for their human companions according to professor Gregory Barnes at Emery University, author of “How Dogs Love: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.” After two years of training dogs to sit still long enough to undergo MRI brain scans, he’s concluded that “dogs are people, too.”
Barnes studies are showing “striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.” This part of the brain is central to the ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment. A dog’s capacity to feel emotions is comparable to that of a human child, according to the professor’s MRI research.
Having the love of a pet in your life is a major remedy for dealing with stress. A surprising 2002 study found that having a pet around kept people calmer when dealing with a difficult situation than did the presence of a best friend, spouse or other family member. Why? Pets provide a constant source of positivity. The stock market goes up and down, jobs come and go, friends move in and out of your life, but a dog is always devoted to bringing unwavering affection, continual playfulness and adoring interactions.
Pets can ease our pain — physically and emotionally. Marty Becker, the vet who authored the book “Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual,” says pets are like Valium. They decrease anxiety, which lessens physical pain associated with arthritis, migraines and other chronic conditions. Several studies have shown that people suffering acute pain from surgical procedures require significantly fewer pain pills if they have a pet around.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the power of pets helping people who are struggling emotionally. Notably, veterans who are suffering from combat wounds and post-traumatic stress disorder have substantially lower levels of suicide if they have a pet that cares about them. A dog doesn’t need any explanations about what happened in the past, causing a wounded warrior to feel bad sometimes, they just want to love and be loved right now. Patients who are depressed are often trapped in their thoughts of past problems, and reorienting to positive experiences in the present can literally be a life saver.
Yet, one more way a pet helps people is that they increase the time spent socializing for the owner. Dogs get people outside more frequently, where they encounter neighbors and engage in more friendly conversations with strangers. Pets provide icebreaker opportunities for their human companions. Having positive interactions with others has been shown to increase people’s perceptions that the world is a safe place populated by people who are friends rather than foes.
And children benefit from having a pet as well. A study of children ages 5 to 7 found that those who have a pet make it to school three more weeks per year than young people from non-pet owning families. The reason: pets dramatically decreased allergies and greatly increased children’s immune systems.
Children with pets also benefit emotionally. Research reveals that kids with pets have better relationships because they learn many more ways to express themselves. This is especially helpful for children with developmental delays resulting from conditions such as autism. Parents who make sure the child is the one taking care of the pet have children who are much more responsible. The predictable patterns of providing care to a pet have proven to be especially effective for improving responsibility with children who have attention deficit disorder. Finally, children who have a pet are less anxious because holding and petting their furry friend is a wonderful way to calm down when they’re distressed.