About 65 percent of American households have pets, and we spend nearly $35 billion dollars a year on these companion animals. (Lucky dogs.) Our pets clearly have us wrapped around their little paws, but what do we get from them in return? There are the obvious answers–companionship, unconditional love, a best friend, some slipper-fetching. But there are also a number of unseen benefits with far-reaching effects: Pets are great for our health.
Pets can help us to heal emotionally, physically, and mentally, but scientists are also discovering that cats and dogs can help fight disease and assist us in coping with chronic conditions. They can have a biochemical impact on their owners’ body chemistry. Numerous medical experts have provided the results of scientific studies that support this biological basis for what we’ve felt intuitively. Here are some of the ways in which pets can have a positive effect on our health.
1. Pets Lessen the Risk of Allergies & Asthma
Counterintuitive, at first, but it makes perfect sense. “The old thinking was that if your family had a pet, the children were more likely to become allergic to the pet. And if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided,” says researcher James E. Gern, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. But a number of new studies suggest that kids growing up in a home with “furred animals”–which can include cats and dogs, as well as farm animals–will have less risk of allergies and asthma.
In his recent study, Gern analyzed the blood of babies immediately after birth and one year later. He was looking for evidence of an allergic reaction, immunity changes, and for reactions to bacteria in the environment. If a dog lived in the home, infants were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies. They also were less likely to have eczema; and they had higher levels of some immune system chemicals–a sign of stronger immune system activation. This sounds similar to the concepts explored in the hygiene hypothesis.