Four Ways Having A Pet Increases Your Lifespan

Pet owners will often swear their beloved pooch or moggie does wonders for their wellbeing, and now we have empirical proof. A new study has found dog ownership is linked to improved heart health for humans. This is an important finding, given heart disease is the leading cause of death globally.

While the new study focuses on dogs and heart disease, it raises the broader question of how pet ownership affects human longevity. Can pets create health in humans?

A study known as the “blue zone” study has focused on factors affecting longevity for over a decade. Nine factors have been identified as increasing lifespan in the communities studied, and many of these factors are increased by pets.

#1 Natural everyday movement

Much of the focus on pets providing health has been on dog walking. But anyone who owns a pet knows there are numerous incidental physical activities associated with pet ownership – like getting up to feed their pet; ensuring the pet’s food and water is available; and looking after pet “accommodation”.

Reducing prolonged sitting and increasing incidental domestic activity have both been shown to be protective with regard to health risks.

Pets provide nudges to everyday movement.

File 20180117 53299 1uqu5iy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1 Waking up to this every morning would surely give you more will to live. (Image: Unsplash/jonathan daniels)

#2 Having a sense of purpose

At the very simplest level, pets can provide “a reason to get up in the morning”.

This has been shown to be particularly important for groups at risk of, or experiencing, poorer health – including the aged, people with long-term mental illness and chronic diseases (including youth).

Our (as-yet-unpublished) research interviewing older people about the impact of their pets on health has found pets could be protective against suicide. Pets are seen as reliant on their owners functionally (“need me to feed them or they will die”) and emotionally (“he would pine for me terribly”).

Feeling unneeded and of no use has been identified as a key risk factor in suicide.

#3 Regular destressing activities

Interaction with pets can reduce stress. There is evidence petting an animal may reduce heart rates, and co-sleeping with pets may improve some people’s quality of sleep.

You must get out of bed so you can feed me. (Image: Unsplash/anthony de kroon)

#4 Belonging and commitment

It’s in the area of relationships (three of the nine “blue zone” factors) that pets may have their most powerful role in longevity.

Pets can act as a social catalyst, promoting social connections, conversations, and even leading to the development of networks of practical support (a form of commitment).

The connectivity of pets can even include non-pet owners, as people feel safer in pet-owning neighbourhoods. Hence, pets can enable a sense of communal belonging identified as increasing longevity.

The role pets play in mental health (as compared to physical health) may be where the strongest connection to individual longevity lies. There is an established link between heart disease and mental unwellness.

Improving mental wellbeing (often through social enhancements) may be key in extending life expectancy, especially for population groups vulnerable to poor social connectedness. These groups often have lower life expectancy.

People with long-term mental illness, autism, and the homeless report their pets as providing nonjudgmental, simpler relationships than those with humans.

Older people report pets reducing loneliness and social isolation. Pets may improve vulnerable people’s interaction with others either directly (improving social skills), or their social catalyst role can override social prejudice.

Pets can provide opportunities to socialise. (ImageL Flickr/Jim'sPhotos1)

Why we need to take pets and health seriously

In acknowledging people’s connection to their pets, we save lives. In disasters, people die staying with, returning to, and trying to save pets. Disaster management planning is increasingly responding to and harnessing this reality, preventing deaths.

It’s also being recognised women stay with violent partners for fear of what will happen to pets. Pet-friendly escape options can save lives.

Public policies that support pet owners, especially in vulnerable groups, have health-promoting outcomes.

It’s important to remember animals are not “things” – they are living, breathing others. Simplistic understandings (“one pat of a pet per day”) risk endangering animals (overlooking their needs; abuse), and some humans (phobias, allergies).

But for the millions of people who choose to have pets, often seeing them as family, increasing longevity is not the point. They add richness, creating lives worth living (longer) for.


The ConversationAnyone seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 22 46 36.

Janette Young, Lecturer in Health Policy, Politics and Promotion, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


Comments

    What about the immune systems of pet owners being stronger due to pets not being entirely clean?

      Possibly offset by the fact you get sick sometimes because of them as well. But it is a good point, surely there are studies related to that?

      I definitely agree with all the points in the article. I know my dogs don't just make it easier to get out of bed they make it mandatory. If I sleep in I'll inevitably be woken by one or both standing on my chest licking my face to tell me "wake up I want breakfast".

    When I have pets I'm more in the habit of washing my hands so I'm probably net down on getting sick.

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