The joys of pet ownership may not be obvious when your 80-pound mutt nose-dives onto your bed at 6 A.M. on a Saturday because you gotta see that squirrel outside the window right this minute, or when you find yourself vacuuming up enough cat fur to knit an XL sweater.
But consider these small annoyances as a kind of co-pay toward your well- being. Scientists now confirm what animal lovers have sensed forever: Pets can make your life fuller, more vibrant, and undeniably healthier.
"Studying the animal-human bond used to be considered touchy-feely science," says Edward Creagan, M.D., a professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine in Rochester, MN, who often prescribes daily dog walks to his cancer patients who have pooches at home. "But now it's in a whole different arena, because there's rock-solid evidence showing how it improves health." Consider the cardiac benefits alone: The American Heart Association says people who own any type of pet have better cholesterol levels, a lower risk of hypertension, and ultimately a lower rate of heart disease than those without critters.
So how do our furry, scaly, and feathered friends work their magic? Being active—just getting up to walk your dog—is a part of the equation, but there's more to it than that. One study of people who owned cats (which, let's be honest, are more likely to inspire a couch snooze than a brisk run) found that the subjects had a 40% lower risk of heart attack than people whose homes were kitty-free. The researchers theorized that the calming effect of snuggling with a furry friend protects your health by dialing down your body's stress response, and the latest research is proving that this theory is right on the (wet, pink) nose. If you need a reason to spend more time with animals—your own pet, a friend's rescue pup, or even the latest Grumpy Cat video trending online—we've got four great ones.
The Hormone Phenomenon
If you could view a brain scan of a pet owner every time she coos, "Who's a good doggie?" you'd see a fascinating rush of chemical activity. Studies show that when you hang with your pet, your brain releases the feel-good hormones oxytocin and prolactin (both integral to nurturing) as well as the neurotransmitters dopamine and phenylethylamine (which boost your mood). The burst of blissful chemicals is partly triggered by your tactile senses—stroking your dog's fur, for example. But surprisingly, it's also activated through eye contact.
A 2015 study in the journal Science found an oxytocin "loop" between pets and humans, and it's similar to what happens when we kiss or hug a person we love. Researchers observed that when a dog looked at his master, canine oxytocin levels increased, causing him to stare extra adoringly. Then, as the human gazed back, she experienced her own oxytocin surge, which led to even more goo-goo eyes. "That happy hormone loop is basically the equivalent of a mother nursing a baby while eating a chocolate bar," says veterinarian Marty Becker, D.V.M., author of The Healing Power of Pets and a member of the Dr. Oz Medical Advisory Council.
Those chemicals do more than just give you warm fuzzies. They also curtail your body's stress response, which is kicked off when your brain feels it's under attack. Let's say you're midrant with your credit card company; your brain releases a cascade of stress hormones that, over the long run, can lead to weight gain, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, explains Robert Mat chock, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Penn State, Altoona. But if you've been hanging with your pup beforehand? Those stress hormones won't surge so high.
While most of these studies have been done using dogs (they're better behaved in lab settings), experts agree that the mental and physical health boost can happen with any pet you love—potentially even more than with friends and family. In Matchock's research, people who spent time with dogs before tackling a big task had a lower stress response than those who hung out with their best friend, believe it or not. "It's not that people you love can't give you great support," says Matchock, "but we sometimes worry about what our friends think of our performance, whereas a pet's love is unconditional, whether we make a mistake or not." Becker says that no matter how much you love your sister or best friend, there will always be some emotional baggage knotted up in your relationship—an unresolved fight from 10 years ago, a hint of jealousy over the other person's new car—whereas a pet offers 100% adoration. Come home from work two hours later than you expected? Instead of pouting, he'll treat your return as if the Beatles were getting back together.
Paging Dr. Spot
Just a few years ago, the idea of letting a dog romp around a hospital would have brought looks of horror. (The germs! The noise!) But research about the healing power of pets has become so irrefutable that thousands of hospitals, nursing homes, and rehab facilities across the country now host pet therapy teams that visit patients regularly. One study found that postsurgery patients who spent time with a therapy dog requested 28% less pain medication than those who had visits only from nurses and relatives. "The animal takes your mind off the pain, which might otherwise be the only thing you have to focus on," says lead researcher Julia Havey, M.S.N., of Loyola University Health System in Maywood, IL. She adds that even looking at an animal can make patients breathe more slowly and feel less tense, which reduces the perception of pain.
Certified therapy animals can perform tasks, like motivating a knee-replacement patient to get on his feet. Even guinea pigs have been trained to play with kids and elderly people, who may be overwhelmed by bigger animals.
Therapy animals have become so popular, in fact, that they're spreading to places where perfectly healthy people simply need a dose of stress relief—and what could be more stressful than college finals? Kathleen Adamle, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Kent State University's College of Nursing, launched the first Dogs on Campus Pet Therapy Program in the country 10 years ago, with five therapy dogs comforting frazzled freshman in the campus library. Her project has exploded (more than 77,000 Kent State students have taken part in the last decade), and therapy dogs now visit 400-plus U.S. colleges. University of Connecticut student Jake Teixeira, 20, says a few moments with a friendly dog helped him power through his tests last spring. "I would scratch the dog's belly and let her lick my hand, and it was so relaxing. It also reminded me that when I finished my exams, I could go home and see my own dog!"
The Fetch Factor
While all creatures can help boost your health, dogs give their owners one big advantage: They need exercise, and they often rely on you to get it. Studies have shown that dog owners get more physical activity than nonowners, and other research has found that people without dogs are twice as likely to be overweight as those who walk their pooches daily.
It goes beyond needing to give dogs a pee break—they're the world's most enthusiastic workout partners. "It's always more fun to exercise with a buddy," vet Becker says. "But with humans, someone always drops out or begs off with a cold. A dog has no better offer—he'll keep nudging you until you get out there!" Even a tiny, pampered fluff ball can get you moving. "My two Pomeranians hate to walk, but they like to do yoga," says Shanna Olson, 36, of Los Angeles. (Yes, you read that right: yoga.) "I took a doggie yoga class and loved it, so I ordered a video and now I do gentle stretches with them twice a week."
Your Secret Social Weapon
Whether you use your pup as a date magnet or bond with another bird owner at Petco, animals help us build a support network—crucial for our health and rare in our "text you later" culture.
"People with pets are more extroverted, have higher self-esteem, and are more conscientious," says Allen McConnell, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio, who studied the personality traits of pet owners and nonowners. While he concedes that outgoing people may be more likely to take in a critter in the first place, he says it's a two-way street, with the pet enhancing those qualities. "You might not approach a random stranger on the street to strike up a conversation, but if the person is walking a dog, there's a natural icebreaker," he says.
When Audrey Bernstein, a 50-year-old jazz singer, uprooted her life in California and moved to Vermont a few years ago, she discovered that her pet rabbit, Blue, was rebooting her social life. "I took Blue with me everywhere, and people would come over to ask, 'Is that a puppy? Ooh, it's a bunny!'" she recalls. "One woman kept seeing me in town and said, 'I really have to meet this person.' She introduced me to her siblings, and now we're all friends."
Research also shows that pets can be a powerful buffer against depression; just thinking about your little buddy can shut down the physical and emotional effects of loneliness, for example. Rasheda Kamaria's emotional salvation came from a stray kitten she found wandering the streets outside her mom's house. "I had recently lost my dad and was in a real 'woe is me' stage of life," says Kamaria, 36, from Detroit. "But when I took Domingo home, he gave me something to focus on outside of my own sadness. He has seen me at my best and worst and doesn't care—he is completely consistent in his love."
Admittedly, pets require more time, money, and energy than, say, drinking green tea. They chew up your new rug. They plop down on your keyboard when you're on deadline. They expect you to walk behind them like a servant, scooping up their royal poop. But in exchange, they never ask "You're wearing that?" or come home from the mall with a nose ring and an attitude. They treat you like a celebrity, with the hyperenthusiastic, lasting love that's harder to come by in the human world. "People tell me they will never be able to give their pet as much as their pet gives them," says Becker. "You give him whatever time you can spare, and he gives you back endless amounts of affection in return." Bunny owner Bernstein agrees. "When I see Blue, I'm filled with crazy joy, and that radiates out to other people." Just look at that little guy. Do you feel it too?
Go Ahead, Click on Critters
What's behind our addiction to videos of sneezing pandas and skateboarding dogs? "It's not just the cute factor—that isn't enough to make something go viral," says Chelsea Marshall, animals editor for BuzzFeed.
It's the happy, empathetic emotions these pics and videos evoke, says Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., of the Media Psychology Program at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA. "Images that make us laugh or go 'aww' generate positive brain chemicals, including dopamine, endorphins, and oxytocin," she says. (Yes, the same response as when we're with a pet in real life.) "And research shows that feel-good content is contagious." No wonder these guys are social media stars:
Grumpy Cat: 7,600,000 Facebook likes
Baby Goat: 1,650,000 video views
Marnie The Dog: 120,000 Instagram likes… and counting!
Don't Have a Pet at Home?
A few easy ways to get more critter time in your life:
Farm-animal sanctuaries: Care for rescued farm animals like cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs. Find one in your state at sanctuaryfederation.org.
Walk a senior's pet: Take an elderly person's pet for park time or vet visits. Get paired up at volunteermatch.org.
Pets Are Home Front Heroes
It's hard enough for soldiers on deployment to leave their four-legged loved ones behind—and even more so when they don't have someone to care for these pets while they're gone.
That's why Shawn and Alisa Johnson, a couple who serve in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, started Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that finds free temporary homes for service members' pets while they're away, defending the rest of us.
Hosts ease the separation by keeping in touch, for example, on Facebook, where the owners can see photos of their pooch.
"When I was in Jordan for six months, it was hard leaving my dog, Santiago," says Samantha Garrido, who is currently stationed in Sumter, SC. "But the family who took him in loved him, spoiled him, and even taught him to swim. Knowing he was in such good hands made it easier for me to concentrate on my job."
Interested in housing a pet for a service member? Visit dogsondeployment.org. —Lambeth Hochwald
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.