One of the more beautiful and unifying aspects of humanity is our willingness to go to great lengths to show how much we care for our animal companions. In many cases we treat them better than we do ourselves. The wealthy among us will throw lavish weddings for their cats or spend thousands to send them to exclusive spas and resorts, while it’s not an uncommon thing to pass by a homeless person whose dog is better fed than they are.
We treasure our pets because in many ways, they remind us of what we wish to be. They are loyal without demanding the same, and they find joy in the simplest, smallest things. They have no need for excess and go to sleep unworried about the future. Their unique brand of love is the most literal definition of unconditional.
Ask any owner about their relationship with their pets and they’ll tell you that it isn’t a one-way street. We benefit from our pets as much—or even more—than they benefit from us. The medical, social, and psychological advantages of animal companionship are myriad, and while the old cliché of man’s best friend may be tired, it’s also truer than we can imagine.
We’ve all heard stories of dogs that rescued people from burning buildings or crossed snowy mountains to reach the stranded and the lost. Less dramatic, but no less helpful, are the other ways in which animals have been shown to improve your overall health and possibly save your life.
Those of us with pets have been found to have lower cholesterol, heart rates, and stress levels than those without. It’s not just cats who find serenity in a belly rub — pet interaction naturally causes your brain to release oxytocin and serotonin, and even watching your goldfish swim in and out of his little sunken castle for a few minutes can reduce cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.
Dogs and some cats can be trained to detect all manner of health hazards, from low blood glucose and food allergens to seizures and several types of cancer. And since dogs, cats, and humans are susceptible to the same cancers, research on pets has led to a better understanding of cancer in humans.
For those who need help getting back in the saddle, pets have proven invaluable in helping with physical therapy and rehab for patients by encouraging mobility and socialization. Early interaction has also been shown to lower the risk of asthma and allergies in infants. And because there’s no better way to improve your health than exercise, nothing really beats a simple walk with the dog or languorous stretch with the cat.
Psychological and Social Benefits
Of course, most of us don’t adopt pets for their magical disease-sniffing prowess or capacity as personal trainers. Oftentimes, their companionship is enough. Belongingness is a driving need inherent to humans, and we are hurt and made lonely by the rejection of friends and family, strangers and lovers. But if you’ve ever had to bring home a puppy to ease the pain of a loved one’s passing or talked your tabby’s ear off because there was no one else to listen, then you know that you’ll always be a little less alone.
It’s no wonder that pets have been prescribed to people suffering from depression, low self-esteem, and severe anxiety. Their calming presence and active demeanor encourages the same from their owners; similarly, actively caring for a pet gets you out of your own head and provides you with a positive, affirming way to spend your time. Even taking them out for a walk gives you a different perspective on the world than if you were alone — it’s hard to not reconsider your own priorities when you see your best friend is having the time of his life just sniffing his way down the street.
We’ve always used animals to help fill that hole in our lives that we can’t fill with money or possessions or our own vanity. We fill it with the things we know to be good and true: faithfulness and friendship and unremitting love. We know that in most cases we’ll end up outliving our pets, and we know that the pain when they leave us will be heartbreaking. We know this, but bring them into our lives regardless, because we know that every single moment, even the ones filled with poop and pee and shredded furniture, will be worth it.
Angie Picardo is a staff writer for NerdWallet, a website dedicated to helping consumers alleviate debt with the best balance transfer cards.