We’ve known pets are good for us for millennia. Some 12,000 years ago, a human was buried with its hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup.
But even earlier, there’s evidence that ice-age humans and wolves hunted large mammals together. That gave us the edge over our main hominid rivals, according to a theory described in The Invaders: How Human and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthal to Extinction by anthropologist Pat Shipman.
Nowadays, this ancient partnership shows no signs of waning. In the United States, the portion of families that owns a pet has been increasing for decades. Currently, more than a third of American families include a cat and half include a dog.
Yet, it can seem rather mysterious. You may wonder why so many people like the experience of walking a dog outdoors in all weather.
And why do cat-owners swoon over creatures that plant themselves in front of the computer screen one minute, hide under the sofa the next, make a racket in the wee hours, and sneak a bite of their sockeye salmon dinner?
Science has some answers.
Pets Are Calming
Simply having canine company, even if you’re not playing, can calm you. In one study, one set of happy volunteers brought their dogs to the office. As the day progressed, their stress levels fell. Another set of volunteers, who spent the workday without their dogs, was measurably more stressed by the end of the day.
And when the first group of dog-owners couldn’t bring their dogs, they were stressed by day’s end, too.
Pets are uniquely calming in a way that even your spouse or a friend may not be, according to other research.
The calm may come from feeling accepted, which creates less vulnerability to rejection from others, another study found. Contradicting stereotypes that people who love animals “too much” may prefer them to humans, this research concluded pet support does not compete with human support.
In other words, science says you can safely date a “cat lady.”
While it’s easy to imagine that pets are especially helpful for people who live alone, they have good effects on couples as well. In a study of 240 married couples, researchers found that the spouses who owned a dog or cat had lower heart rates and blood pressure, both at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than couples who didn’t have pets.
What about exercise? If your dog gets you out for a walk, that’s clearly a good thing. One small study found that among older adults, owning a dog was linked to an extra 22 minutes of walking and 2,760 more steps a day.
To quote no less an authority than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “There are many health benefits of owning a pet. They can increase opportunities to exercise, get outside, and socialize. Regular walking or playing with pets can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels. Pets can help manage loneliness and depression by giving us companionship.” Elsewhere, the CDC notes that pets may improve cognitive function in older adults.
Dogs Make us more socially connected
It’s often said that walking a dog is a good way to get to know your neighbors. The dogs will lead the way, either barking at each other or making friends. And indeed, a randomized phone survey of residents in Perth, Australia, and several American cities found that dog owners were more likely to say that they knew people in their neighborhood. Many reported receiving help of some kind from people they met through their dogs.
Sadly, there’s no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog or cat, despite what you may hear from some breeders. Spanish water dogs, Airedales, poodles and the Labrador-poodle mix known as the Labradoodle have all been touted as hypoallergenic, but their beautiful hair actually carries more of the most common allergen than an ordinary Lab.
Many pet owners love their pets so much they’d never give them up, even at the risk of an allergy attack. It’s a question to ask yourself before you commit, but the fact that so many sign on is one more strong testament to the joy and peace a pet can bring.