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Surprising Health Benefits of Being Close to Animals

Chrissy is a Certified International Health Coach, dog & cat mom and farm animal sanctuary volunteer.

Woman sitting on dock with dog by a lake overlooking mountains.

Woman sitting on dock with dog by a lake overlooking mountains.

Most people will say they like animals, there is nothing like the feeling of coming home after a long day of work to play with the dog or pet the cat.

Even those without a pet of their own can now indulge in activities like goat yoga, cow cuddling, and cat cafes. I recently saw an event advertised called Pints and Puppies, where patrons could sip on beer and play with adoptable dogs.

Not only does petting a furry creature feel good, but science is starting to discover that being near animals can have multiple benefits to human health.

Dog ownership can increase longevity.

A scientific review published in 2019 by the American Heart Association, determined that owning a dog resulted in a 24% reduction in the risk of premature death. People who own dogs tend to have lower blood pressure and are more resilient to stress which is beneficial to the cardiovascular system.

Plus people that had already suffered a heart attack prior to owning a dog, had an increased benefit of 31% risk reduction of having a future fatal coronary event with a pet in their home.

It seems obvious the link between cardiovascular health and pet ownership. Dog owners tend to be more active and participate in walking frequently. Physical movement is highly beneficial for heart health. But is there more to it than that?

What is the parasympathetic nervous system?

It is the system of nerves that relaxes our body after periods of stress or activity and is responsible for many bodily functions such as digestion, saliva production, and bladder control. One might say most importantly, it maintains our resting heart rate by dilating and relaxing our blood vessels.

The more time the parasympathetic nervous system is activated the healthier a person is. Consider this network of nerves the body's braking and coolant system, where the sympathetic system network of nerves is the gas and engine used to move, respond or react.

Having a healthy balance of the nervous system will increase mood and decrease feelings of anxiety or depression.

We can stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system by invoking a sense of calm through our body. This can be achieved through relaxation techniques such as focused breathing, visualizations, or journaling. Pretty much any type of activity that places a person in a state of feeling safe and content.

How do animals affect our nervous system?

As long as it's not a lion trying to hunt us or a shark trying to eat us, animals tend to calm our nerves for a few reasons:

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  • The bond between a person and their pet can decrease loneliness.
  • The pleasure derived from touching an animal lowers our heart rate.
  • Being present with an animal is an act of mindfulness.
  • The presence of an animal can increase feelings of security and safety.

Did you know cows are naturally warmer in temperature than humans and have slower breathing and heart rates? When we rest against them our bodies tend to relax into their warmth, our breathing starts to flow in sequence with the animal and we achieve almost a meditative state. This is why cow-hugging has become a wellness trend.

Woman and toddler cuddled against a cow.

Woman and toddler cuddled against a cow.

What other benefits are there?

The responsibility of caring for a pet can assist people in adapting to routines and structure, an excellent life skill.

The feeling of connection to another creature helps people feel more empathy. Empathy improves emotional intelligence as it causes a person to think about life from a different perspective. Emotional intelligence builds confidence and people with high levels of emotional intelligence tend to perform better in life and work.

There is a link to an article from the National Institutes of Health titled The Power of Pets below that shares additional observations such as children with Type 1 diabetes that have fish tend to manage their treatments more successfully.

NIH Article: The Power of Pets

Animals Play an Important Role

So important in fact, that there are at least ten different types of service dogs in North America now for ailments such as Alzheimer's, autism, and epilepsy in addition to the traditional seeing-eye dog. Therapy dogs are also being utilized in various treatment centers for patients in palliative care or trauma recovery. This is a powerful testimony to the positive effect of animals on humans.

Thankfully most of us only require a pet, or a little bit of time close to an animal, to improve our health and life satisfaction.

Where Can I Spend Time with Animals?

Don't have a pet for various reasons but want to spend a little time with a furry friend? Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Search for animal sanctuaries that allow tours in your area, consider volunteering!
  • Your local humane society may have a take-a-dog-for-a-weekend program.
  • Visit a friend with pets.
  • Go to your local dog park and walk around, you don't actually need a dog! It's not the same as going to a playground without children, I promise.

Follow your local rescues on social media as they will often post their events. Maybe you will get to have a pint with a puppy or a latte with a kitty in your town!

This is me with my friend Lucky, a pig at a local farm sanctuary near my home. She loves to give kisses and cuddles.

This is me with my friend Lucky, a pig at a local farm sanctuary near my home. She loves to give kisses and cuddles.

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