A 2015 Harris poll revealed that 95% of pet owners think of their four-legged friends as members of the family. As an added bonus, people with pets tend to have lower blood pressure and a lower risk for heart disease than those who don’t. But now, scientists are also realizing that pets can be just as good for their owner’s mental health as they are for their physical health.
While this might seem a bit obvious to devoted pet owners, it’s finally being confirmed through scientific research.
Even though the studies conducted thus far have been small, there is evidence enough that clinics have started opening their doors to animal assistance. In other words, pet therapy. While play therapy has been used as a means for children to communicate their feelings for upwards of 70 years, animals have now made their way into clinical settings just as toys once did.
Bringing an animal into a hospital used to be frowned upon, but Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, says there isn’t a children’s hospital in sight without some form of animal therapy program.
“If you look at what animals do for people and how we interact with them, it’s not surprising at all,” Beck told TIME.
And now, further studies have suggested that growing up with a pet can prove beneficial to children’s mental health. Approximately 14% of Americans report feeling gloomy and stressed by their home environment, but it’s been proven that simply interacting with an animal can reduce stress and increase levels of serotonin and dopamine.
Initiatives such as Read2Dog have seen this phenomenon in effect. This organization places dogs in schools and sees firsthand the effect they have on shy children or those with literacy issues.
“Children and elderly people can be fragile. Children lose their inhibitions when they’re sitting there with a little friendly dog,” Julie Lovatt, a volunteer for the organization, told Refinery29.
In addition, bringing dogs into schools can help children learn how to take care of their four-legged friends. Along with companionship, this teaches compassion and responsibility. An estimated 85% of dogs have some form of periodontal disease after age four, and children can learn how to better care for their pets to prevent it.
And, as we previously mentioned, pets contribute to positive physical health. A study by The Harvard Medical School revealed that dogs actually help reduce blood pressure, as well as lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the body.
Dog might be man’s best friend, but they’re also man’s best bet to living a happy, healthy life.