The Friend Who Keeps You Young

Caring for a pet is great for both your physical and emotional health. A Johns Hopkins expert shares the proven connections—plus ways to benefit even if you’re not ready for the full-time responsibility of an animal.

Adopting a pet may seem like a selfless act, but there are plenty of selfish reasons to embrace pet ownership. Research has shown that owning a pet provides an amazing array of health benefits, says Jeremy Barron, M.D., medical director of the Beacham Center for Geriatric Medicine at Johns Hopkins.

Not ready for a full-time furry friend in your home? Offer to walk a neighbor’s dog, cat-sit for a friend, or donate time at a local animal shelter—even short interactions provide enough pet exposure to reap some of these rewards.

Reduce Stress

Research has shown that simply petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol, while the social interaction between people and their dogs actually increases levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin (the same hormone that bonds mothers to babies).

In fact, an astonishing 84 percent of post-traumatic stress disorder patients paired with a service dog reported a significant reduction in symptoms, and 40 percent were able to decrease their medications, reported a recent survey.

Lower Blood Pressure

The cortisol-lowering and oxytocin-boosting benefits of petting also help keep your blood pressure at bay. “Petting and holding an animal allows you to appreciate the beauty of nature,” explains Barron. “It’s relaxing and transcendental.”

Increase Physical Activity

How many people are willing to go outside at the crack of dawn and exercise in the rain or snow? Dog owners often have no choice—they have to walk their pet, thus providing them with an excuse-proof daily dose of exercise.

Boost Heart Health

The American Heart Association released a research report endorsing dog ownership as a way of warding off cardiovascular disease.

Ease Loneliness and Depression

A 2011 study found that pet owners had better self-esteem. Another study determined that pets provided greater social support than humans in mitigating depression. “Caring for a pet provides a sense of purpose to the owner,” says Barron. Plus, pets are a good social catalyst for meeting people who share your animal interests.

Help Specific Health Concerns

Beyond simple companionship, dogs have long been wonderful helpers to those without sight or with mobility issues. Dogs are even being used to help detect conditions from seizures to cancer.

The information from Johns Hopkins is provided for educational purposes only. Johns Hopkins, The John Hopkins University, their affiliates and their employees disclaim any responsibility for errors or any consequences arising from the use of this information. All medical information should be reviewed with a health-care provider.