In communities everywhere, four-legged friends are transforming the way families stay active, children learn responsibility, and neighbors connect. From cats and dogs to guinea pigs, science has confirmed what pet owners have known all along: unconditional love from pets offers many emotional and physical benefits. Some experts call this the “pet effect,” or the impact of the human-animal bond on family health and well-being.
We interviewed Elisabeth Van Every, Communications & Outreach Specialist for Pet Partners, the largest pet therapy organization in the U.S., to help us identify the ways pets are moving, changing, and benefiting our hearts, bodies, and minds.
Pets help reduce stress.
Balancing busy schedules at work, home, and school is sure to create stress for anyone. But when the going gets tough, pets are a well-known source of social and emotional support. In fact, spending time with a pet is linked to releasing oxytocin, one of the body’s “feel-good” chemicals.
“Pets have an innate ability to support communities during times of crisis,” says Van Every. “Pet Partners teams have supported numerous communities after crisis events such as unexpected deaths, hurricanes, and wildfires.”
Pets make us feel less lonely.
Loneliness and social isolation have become a top health concern across the globe. However, companionship from animals can keep loneliness at bay. Caring for and waking up to a pet happy to see you provides a sense of purpose and validation.
Therapy animals are especially good at offering support and alleviating symptoms of depression. For children experiencing social anxiety, companionship from an animal can be extremely beneficial. According to a study at Cambridge University, children not only turn to their furry friends for support during tough times but also often turn to pets instead of their human peers.
Pets connect us with others in our community.
Gathering at dog parks isn’t just for the dogs. The benefits of the human-animal bond are far-reaching, and pet ownership is strongly associated with higher levels of social capital, or the “glue” that holds society together. Pets are known to be a catalyst for strong human relationships in neighborhood settings, helping owners create social connections and develop friendships.
As dog-friendly work policies are becoming the norm, pets are also bringing workplace communities together. “Our Animal-Assisted Workplace Well-being initiative has brought therapy animal teams to workplaces around the country, allowing hundreds of employees the opportunity to bond and improve well-being,” says Van Every.
Pets keep us healthy.
Pets require regular exercise to stay healthy, and they typically need a little help from humans to get the job done. Animals make great training partners, and exercise scientists from the University of Liverpool found dog owners are about four times more likely to meet today’s physical activity guidelines.
Additionally, therapy animal programs are often customized to help patients adapt to new physical wellness routines and create healthy exercise and lifestyle habits. “Our teams regularly visit with young people, and discussing their pet’s diet can be a lead-in to a conversation about human nutrition,” says Van Every. “Therapy animals can even inspire patients to walk again after recovering from medical treatment, aiding in the journey towards restored wellness.”
Pets teach us responsibility.
Pets hold us accountable to schedules and routines. Whether it’s a dog, a bird, or even a chinchilla, caring and providing for a living creature requires commitment and consistency—and it isn’t always easy or convenient for owners.
Pets also help children learn responsibility. Playing fetch and tug-of-war is great; however, pet ownership isn’t all fun and games. Feeding, grooming, and cleaning up after a pet can be hard work, but when kids learn that it isn’t always a walk in the park, that’s where a love to serve others is born.
Elisabeth Van Every is the Communications & Outreach Specialist for Pet Partners, the largest and most prestigious non-profit registering therapy dogs and other therapy animal pets, including horses, cats, rabbits, and birds. Since 2014, Elisabeth has worked with Pet Partners, supporting training and education for the Therapy Animal Program, managing the Animal-Assisted Workplace Well-being initiative, and telling the stories of how our therapy animals improve human health and well-being.