Anyone who has pets knows how happy they make you. But did you know that pets can also make and keep you healthy? Over the last two decades, multiple scientific studies throughout the world have confirmed the powerful positive effects that pets can have on our health — both physically and emotionally. A wagging tail and a cold wet nose may, in fact, be the best medicine there is.

This week’s column will focus on the many ways having a pet can benefit your physical health. Next week, we’ll discuss the important role pets play in our mental and emotional health.

From the National Institute of Health to the American Heart Association to the National Centre for Health Research, studies prove that pets can:


Lower your blood pressure

The simple act of petting an animal reduces your blood pressure by boosting levels of the hormone oxytocin. Pet owners generally have lower blood pressure than those who do not own pets.


Reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke

Pet owners have decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels, minimizing the risk of heart attack. They are also more likely than other coronary patients to be alive one year after a heart attack, with dog owners five times more likely. Cat owners are 33-40 per cent less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke than those who don’t own one. One study found that having a cat was actually more effective at lowering cholesterol than prescription medications.


Strengthen your immune system

The happiness your pet gives you is a natural immune system booster. On a chemical level, owning a pet can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol that can weaken your body. It can also significantly improve the release of protective antibodies, such as immunoglobulin A, that bolster the immune system.


Lessen allergy risks for kids

Children who live with dogs and cats, particularly during infancy, have a reduced risk of developing allergies later in life to pets and other allergens including dust mites, grass and wool. One study showed that having a pet dog can cut your child’s risk of asthma by 15 per cent.


Make healthy lifestyle changes

Pets encourage physical activity. Dogs need regular walks. Their owners are far more likely to meet their daily exercise needs than non-owners and are better able to lose weight. Dogs can provide support to their owners akin to a human exercise pal and with more consistency. Cats need exercise and playtime, integral components of a healthy lifestyle.


Help to heal muscle and bone injuries

Higher oxytocin levels produced from caressing your pet enhance the body’s state of readiness to heal and to grow new cells. A cat’s purr ranges from 20-140 hertz, the same frequency range at which bones and muscles grow best and repair themselves.


Have fewer health care absences and visits

People who have a pet typically miss less work, make fewer visits to the doctor and have fewer hospital stays than non-pet owners. Hospital patients visited by therapy dogs and cats report less pain, anxiety, fatigue and depression. And it’s not just the ill person who reaps the benefits. Friends and family members who are present during the animal’s visit say they feel better, too.

Research emphasizes that having a pet will provide health benefits only to people who love and appreciate them and can dedicate the time and money need to keep them healthy and happy. To those people: on these cold winter days, curl up with your furry friend and your favourite book. Your body will thank you for it.