Picture of a dog in a superhero costume.

The Many Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

Pets provide a boost to physical and mental well-being
Author: Matt McMillen

If you struggle to maintain the motivation to exercise, a four-legged friend, especially a dog, can be the nudge you need to lace up your shoes and get moving. Pets of all kinds also offer a remedy for loneliness, a common accompaniment to chronic illness in both adults and children.

“Walking is the No. 1 exercise for all ages, and if you have a dog, that’s all you may need to make exercise a new habit,” says Susan Earl, a licensed clinical social worker at the Utah Center for Bleeding & Clotting Disorders at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City.

Improves Physical Health

In a national poll conducted by the University of Michigan in 2019, 4 in 5 older adults said that having a pet helped reduce stress, while 3 in 5 reported that their pets made them more physically active. In fact, dog owners walk an average of 300 minutes each week—that’s double the amount of moderate exercise recommended to maintain good health. Meanwhile, studies suggest that both cats and dogs offer heart-health benefits.

Although dogs provide the greatest opportunity to exercise because of their need to be walked daily, Earl says other pets promote physical activity as well. She points out that some cats can be leash-trained for a lap around the block, and she even has a patient who takes a hedgehog for walks.

In addition to walking, you can get your pet involved in other activities. Dogs like playing tug of war and fetch, for example. Earl’s dog joins in while she does yoga. And she says some shelters offer yoga with cats, rabbits or goats.

“Caring for and playing with a pet will get you up off the couch,” she says.

Helps with Depression

Pets can also help the many people with bleeding disorders who have depression, Earl says.

“When you are experiencing depression, your focus is often inward,” she says. “A pet can help you get outside of yourself by directing your attention to its needs. Dogs, for example, are pack animals, and you become part of a pack.”

And it’s not just dogs. All types of pets can offer joy. Some people, Earl says, benefit from the calming effect of watching their fish swim in a tank or listening to their birds chirp from across the room.

“It’s up to what you like,” Earl says.

Pick the Right Pet for You

Before you head to the shelter or pet store to pick out a new furry companion, keep these suggestions from Earl in mind.

  • Do your homework. Some dog breeds, such as border collies, require a lot of exercise, and others, such as small poodles and Chihuahuas, not as much. Know your physical limits and choose wisely.
  • Be aware of allergies. It will be hard if the animal you love makes you wheeze and sneeze. If you suspect a pet allergy, ask your doctor to test you before bringing home a furry friend. Also, consider breeds that produce fewer allergens, such as poodles.
  • Consider an older animal. Puppies have a crazy amount of energy and can be a real challenge, Earl warns. An adult dog may be just your pace.
  • Be patient. “The early weeks of pet ownership can be difficult, but don’t give up,” Earl says. “You both need time to adapt to each other.”