PETS: Four factors can increase lifespans through interaction with pets.
PETS: Four factors can increase lifespans through interaction with pets. ThinkStock

Four reasons to have a pet in your health plan

ALL types of pets make a difference to our lives says University of South Australia's researcher Dr Jeanette Young because they can also help improve the health of humans.

"I think it's the mental health and social health where pets may actually be at their most powerful for us," Dr Young said.

She chose from the Blue Zone longevity study, which identified nine factors as increasing lifespan in the communities studied, four factors which increased lifespans through interaction with pets.

Everyday movement

Reducing prolonged sitting and increasing incidental domestic activity are both known to be valuable to health - pets often the nudges we need to improving our everyday movement.

While much of the focus on pets and health tends to highlight the health value of dog walking, Dr Young notes that anyone who owns a pet knows there are a number of other physical activities associated with pet ownership such as getting up to feed them, ensuring their pet's food and water is available and looking after their accommodation.

Sense of purpose

Getting up in the morning to look after a pet is important for people at risk of poor health, including the aged, people with long-term mental illness and chronic diseases Dr Young states.

"Our (as-yet-unpublished) research interviewing older people about the impact of their pets on health has found pets could be protective against suicide," Dr Young writes. "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')."

Destressing

"It's the notion of holding an animal; intimate touch and companionable touch - if you lose a partner of 50 years, who is going to give you that companionable hug?"

She says there is evidence petting an animal may reduce heart rates, and co-sleeping with pets may improve some people's quality of sleep.  "It's intimacy and physical closeness," she adds.

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," Dr Young states.

Imagine the warm feeling of being wanted when your pet greets you as you arrive home or get out of bed in the morning. "It's the sense of being needed and loved," she added.

Pets can activate social connections. She also notes that people often feel safer in pet-owning neighbourhoods so pets can create a sense of communal belonging.

They can be reassuring in the mental health space when humans may think you are doing and saying weird things where a pet will often be non-judgemental. There is a proven 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," Dr Young reports. "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."

A well pet can mean a healthier owner

"Animals shouldn't be seen as a tool for human entertainment," Dr Young said. "They are not instruments. They are living creatures.

"If we are going to think about human wellness, we need to also think about animal wellness when they are with us."

Taking time to learn what your pet's needs are and what are their stress triggers. "When I talk to people who really care about their animal, they care enough to seek out understandings of what is good for the animal," Dr Young said. 

The original story Four ways having a pet increases your lifespan was published in The Conversation.


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