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Essay: Benefits of Owning a Pet

An Essay by Jeannine Moga, MSW, LGSW

Most people read and hear regularly about the importance of staying healthy and living longer through diet and exercise. While it’s definitely smart to follow that advice, you can do something else to help keep your mind and body in optimum condition. Connect with a critter — it goes a long way toward making you happy and healthy.

Studies have shown that forming a relationship with an animal can have important health and psychological benefits. Owning a pet or interacting regularly with animals can lower humans’ blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression, and increase their social interaction. People who have dogs also tend to get more exercise from regular walks.

It doesn’t really matter what kind of pet you have, whether it’s a cat or a dog, a fish or a ferret, an iguana or a horse. What’s important is developing a relationship with an animal. Having a pet often provides people with a reason for enjoying life and connecting with others.

This can be especially critical for older adults, who sometimes get socially isolated or struggle with finding a sense of purpose. It commonly happens after seniors retire, their spouse dies, their children and grandchildren grow up, or their families move away.

Owning a pet serves as a wonderful way to rediscover a sense of purpose. It helps people feel needed and wanted. After all, most people can’t help but smile when their dog greets them with their tail wagging or their cat curls up cozily on their lap.
Providing for an animal’s needs by going to the pet store or taking a dog for a walk helps reduce seniors’ social isolation by encouraging them to get out into the world. They may meet new friends at a dog park or at the pet store when they go to buy more birdseed.

If a cat or dog is too expensive or needy, consider a more low-maintenance pet like a fish. Even these critters can provide mental and physical benefits. A study at Purdue University found that people with Alzheimer’s disease are calmer, focus better on eating, and digest their food more easily when they eat their meals in front of a fish tank.

However, before buying or adopting a pet, be sure to educate yourself about the animal’s specific needs for maintaining their health and wellness. You don’t want to take on more than you bargained for.

If you aren’t ready to commit to taking an animal into your home — it’s too expensive or too much of a commitment — there are other ways to benefit from the animal/human connection. Head into nature and look for birds or other wildlife. Another option is volunteering at an animal shelter or pet sitting for neighbors or family members who are going on vacation.

Animals are calming, accepting friends that offer unconditional love and kindness, as well as many health benefits. So think about bringing a pet into your life. You won’t regret it.

Jeannine Moga, MSW, LGSW, is director of the Social Work Program at the University of Minnesota’s Veterinary Medical Center. May 2007

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