It is a scientifically proven fact that palling around with a pug, cuddling a kitty, or taking care of a turtle helps us stay active, engaged, and less stressed— all things that are important in diabetes management and in reducing the risk of complications like heart disease. Read on for these three positively healthy, science-backed reasons why.
THEY KEEP YOU COMPANY
“Pets provide social support, making people feel less lonely and more valued,” says Erika Friedmann, Ph.D., lead author of the University of Maryland study. The social support that pets offer is different from the support we get from human friends. “In a way, it’s more dependable; it’s nonjudgmental,” says Friedmann. That unconditional love can help reduce loneliness, which has been linked with greater cognitive decline, earlier death, and additional stress, and in turn, may increase the risk of chronic diseases.
THEY MOTIVATE YOU TO LEAD A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE
Your pet isn’t going to walk himself, is he? Owning a pet often means you’ll need to move more, whether it’s hauling home large bags of cat litter or chasing down your hyperactive dog, which actually is good. Moving more is important for blood sugar management and has been linked with slowing or delaying the progression of chronic diseases such as hypertension—this might be a reason why having a dog is linked with reduced risks of heart diseases.
Besides being an impetus for exercise, pets can help keep their owners on a healthy schedule, including eating regular meals and taking medication. They can also provide a sense of purpose, or at least make you smile. “They give you a reason to get up, and that improves self-worth,” says Friedmann. As Megan Hosey, Ph.D., an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, puts it, “Pets are a metaphorical carrot for getting out of bed.”
When taking care of a pet, “you feel responsible for something else,” Friedmann says, which can translate into taking better care of yourself. In fact, our bodies release prolactin in the presence of animals, a hormone that is called the “parenting hormone” because it can cause us to feel nurturing.
Pets can also provide motivation for recovering from an illness or injury. “A dog sitting in a patient’s lap eases suffering and builds motivation in ways that medical interventions may not,” says Hosey. “We’ve seen hospital patients whose main motivation for getting better was to go home and see their dog, cat, or even the turtle, in one case.”
THEY CHILL YOU OUT
“When we look at a pet with whom we’re bonded, there’s a flood of [the feel-good chemical] oxytocin to the brain, so we feel happy, and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol,” says Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., RN, a University of Missouri professor, director of the Research Centre for Human-Animal Interaction. These hormonal changes cause our heart rate and our blood pressure to drop in a beneficial way,” he says.