Having a furry friend boosts happiness, eases stress, and makes you more resilient. Here’s what makes the human-pet bond so powerful.

By Andrea Stanley, Erin Reimel, Pam O'Brien, and Marnie Schwartz
Updated December 04, 2020
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Cats and dogs have always been a source of joy, but especially in the last six months. Under lockdown, those of us with pets turned to them for solace, affection, and companionship; many others adopted a cat or a dog. According to PetPoint, which tracks data from 1,200 shelters nationwide, animal adoptions have surged this year.

And science backs up why pets make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. In fact, a furry friends give us a sense of love and connection, and experts say they also make us physically and emotionally strong. Here are the benefits of having a pet you need to know about.

They help you chill out.

When it comes to improving your state of zen, furry friends come with benefits. "A number of studies support the relaxing effects of interacting with pets," says Sandra Barker, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and director at the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine. One Harvard University study showed that 87 percent of people felt less angsty after spending time with a pet. That's right — Fido can fetch and make you feel chill.

That's great news for your mindfulness practice, too; If you're always spiraling into a worry zone, the same Harvard study shows that pets allow you to stay plugged into the moment. (Even better if you try these 10 mantras for mindfulness.)

Plus, research shows that they can help reduce stress hormones. "Petting a dog for just 10 minutes has been shown to reduce stress," says Deborah Linder, a veterinary nutritionist and a co-director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction. “Research shows that interacting with pets can reduce blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” she says. In a study conducted by Barker and her colleagues, pets were found to lower the presence of cortisol. "We believe that by providing a nonjudgmental form of social support, pets may buffer the impact of stressful events," says Barker.

Spending time with your pet can also decrease anxiety and depression. “We’ve found that the simple presence of an animal can increase a person’s positive emotions and make them smile and laugh more," says Leanne Nieforth, a graduate student at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine. (Related: How My Dog—and Exposure Therapy—Saved Me from Life In a Psych Ward)

They bond with you.

Falling in love with a furry face might be instinctual. “Attachment theory suggests that the emotional bond formed between living beings is adaptive for our survival,” says Nieforth. Just as we need human interaction to live a happy life, that same connection can also be found through our dog or cat. The rewards that come from engaging with a pet explains why people are drawn to them. "As the pandemic continues, pets play a key role in providing support and companionship," says Nieforth.

They make you more active.

Going for runs or hikes with your dog is a great form of exercise, but that isn’t the only motivational benefit of having a pet. Their steadying, upbeat presence has a way of inspiring you to get up and go outside. “They encourage you to stay active and maintain a consistent routine,” says Nieforth. They also make you want to move, which is a natural mood booster.

Not to mention, being outdoors majorly improves your mood. In fact, escaping the indoors actually changes your mind and allows you to feel relaxed and more focused, according to a Stanford University study. So having an animal that always needs a daily dose of fresh air is constantly exposing you to exactly what you need to feel at peace. (Make sure your pooch has the proper gear while you enjoy the outdoors – stock up on these functional and cute dog accessories.)

They boost feel-good chemicals.

One of the biggest benefits of having a pet around is that they keep you in a haze of happiness. Research published in Science revealed that just by looking at your pet's eyes, you get a hit of oxytocin and prolactin, hormones that leave you feeling majorly blissed out. And Barker adds: If you really want to up the feel-good factor, go ahead and pet your cat or dog — the act of touching your animal activates even more serene-fueling hormones, like dopamine.

They're good for heart health.

Seeing your pet doesn't just make your heart skip a beat — it actually helps keep your heart rate from jumping up, says Barker. When your heart rate is elevated, it's easy to feel on edge, she says, but your cute creature may just be the cure.

Even better: The American Heart Association published research on the health benefits of having a pet, and linked it to reduced heart disease, lower cholesterol, and a greater chance at surviving a heart attack (although there is less data available to support that claim). It's believed that pet owners are more active, which helps keep your ticker healthy.

They give you hope.

In these isolating and stressful times, we are turning to our furry companions more than ever. According to recent research by Phyllis Erdman, Ph.D., an associate dean in the College of Education and a counseling professor at Washington State University who studies animal-human interaction, and a team of collaborators, the coronavirus pandemic is strengthening the pet-person bond. They surveyed over 4,000 people, the vast majority of whom said their pets are helping them deal with depression, anxiety, and the uncertainty of what’s happening and giving them a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning.

They show you what really matters.

In a crazy world, animals help us get back to basics. “Our lives have become very complicated,” Erdman says. “There are so many things demanding our attention all the time, and we have limited moments to just relax. There’s such joy in being with a pet because it’s very calming and soothing.”

Pets can also help us be more compassionate to ourselves, the survey found. “They make us more self-aware,” she says. “Feelings travel down the leash.” For instance, if you’re anxious, your pet can sense that and start to respond in the same way. You realize that by addressing your emotions and being kinder to yourself, you’re doing him a favor as well.

They add structure to your days.

With so many of us working from home, our schedules are very different now, which can make us feel adrift. “We found that pets help give people a routine,” says Erdman. “When you’re at home, it’s easy to just keep on working and forget what time it is. Pets know when walk time is and when it’s time to eat. My dogs bark at 5 p.m. to tell me to feed them and play with them. Pets supply us with some structure.”

They make you feel loved.

Science shows that when we pet our dogs and cats, our bodies release oxytocin, the hormone that makes us feel calm, content, and appreciated. “It relaxes both you and the animal,” says Erdman. In addition, as she points out, pets are nonjudgmental: “Even if you get frustrated or lose patience with them, they don’t hold a grudge. They’re very forgiving and supply unconditional love.” They also give our brains a break from all the bad news we’re constantly exposed to. “When you’re feeling bombarded with it, you can turn it off by sitting down with your cat or dog and petting them,” says Erdman. “That simple act makes you feel much better.”

They make you more playful.

“One of the ways that all mammals take care of themselves is through play,” says Philip Tedeschi, the executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work. If you’ve ever watched a normally serious adult speak baby talk to a pet, you’ve seen how pets can bring out your silly side. During long work-from-home days, a dog dropping her ball at your feet or a cat bringing you his toys provides a chance to have some fun. Plus, being playful with a pet can shift your neurochemistry, Tedeschi says, activating oxytocin and dopamine, a neurotransmitter that improves mood.

They reduce loneliness.

This benefit of having a pet probably isn't that surprising, but it's one worth mentioning anyway. Your dog recognizes small changes in your face, registers your posture and the tone of your voice, and knows your normal breathing and heart rate — and she can use this information to quickly identify your emotional state, says Tedeschi. This deep connection to our pets staves off loneliness and provides a sense of well-being, he adds. In fact, an Australian study found that when people acquired a dog, their levels of loneliness went down measurably within three months. Playing and cuddling with a pooch lifts our state of mind in the short term and may affect mood in the long term as well, says Lauren Powell, Ph.D., the lead author of the study.

They expand your network.

"People are more likely to talk to strangers if they're accompanied by a dog,” says Powell. Having a four-legged pal with you helps break the ice and immediately gives you something to talk about — the kind of interaction that’s more important than ever during these socially distanced times. Pets can also deepen the relationships within your own family. For example, a study from Kent State University found that kids who felt close to their dogs were more securely attached to their parents. When you spend time with your partner or children in the presence of your pet, that extra oxytocin helps keep you relaxed and genuinely connected and makes you laugh, and you start to associate that positive feeling with family time and build deeper connections, says Tedeschi.

Comments (1)

Anonymous
May 29, 2017
OMG first photo is of a shiba inu and I adore those dogs. We've had 3 so far and will have more soon. Just lost our last guy at the beginning of the month and will get another rescue soon. Love them!