How pets boost our health and happiness

June 21, 2023

There’s nothing quite like being greeted at the door or snuggled up to by a loving pet. These faithful friends can make dark days brighter, providing us with comfort and support. And while many of us know the overall joys of pet ownership, there are valuable mental and physical health benefits to connecting with an animal companion.

Pets and mental health

It might seem obvious that interacting with adorable animals can boost your mood, but there is science to support it.

“Although research in this area is new, early findings suggest that pets can lower cortisol, increase dopamine and serotonin, and decrease symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety,” says Jodie Voth, manager of Manitoba Blue Cross’s Employee Assistance Program.

Having a pet can also create a sense of purpose for their caregivers, helping to reduce loneliness.

“Any pet that a person feels connected to can support their mental health,” says Voth.

In fact, animal-assisted therapy has increased in popularity in recent years, with providers incorporating animals into a treatment plan to help people cope with and recover from some physical and mental health conditions.

Therapy dogs are an increasingly common sight in hospital and care home facilities. These highly skilled animals help to provide comfort and alleviate patient stress. But as Voth importantly reminds us, animal-assisted therapy is meant to enhance other treatments – not replace them.

“Animal-assisted therapy involves a professional handler who has specialized training in the use of the animal in providing therapy,” says Voth. “Dogs and horses in particular have demonstrated their ability to be trained specifically for the purpose of enhancing psychotherapy or providing other therapeutic benefits.”

Pets and physical health

In addition to supporting our mental health, our pets can get us up and active. Ask any new dog owner if they are adding steps to their usual count, and you will likely hear a resounding yes. Walking, running, playing and even chasing a pet around the house keeps us more active.

“Remember, movement is medicine, and with most pets, movement is required,” says Florent Thézard, wellness program leader at Manitoba Blue Cross and certified athletic therapist.

“Playing with a cat is better for your joints than sitting still all day. Even with fish you have to reach into the tank and lift heavy buckets of water… all better than sitting on a couch for your circulatory and musculoskeletal systems.”

This extra physical activity adds up. By boosting your fitness levels, you can help to lower your cholesterol, decrease blood pressure, strengthen your bones and muscles, and even improve the quality of your sleep.

What to know before getting a pet

It is important to ensure you can provide the proper care and attention a pet requires.

“Dogs can live over a decade, so if you cannot commit to a living being for the span of its life, you should not acquire one,” says Alex Edye-Mazowita, disability case manager at Manitoba Blue Cross and frequent foster dog parent.

In addition to the physical activity required for some animals, you will also need food, toys, medications, preventative treatments, potential training and the ability and financial means to care for an injured or sick animal.

While these are all serious considerations, don’t be discouraged. If you find you are not ready to commit to a pet that requires a high level of care, there are many other ways you can benefit from animal interactions.

“Consider volunteering with a local shelter like the Humane Society or Winnipeg Pet Rescue Shelter. The larger organizations like Manitoba Underdogs also have ways for you to interact with dogs that aren’t long-term fostering. For example, taking a dog to an adoption fair or to a vet appointment when the foster can’t,” says Edye-Mazowita.

“Or for the most casual, non-committal interactions – there’s no law against going to a dog park without a dog! Bring a book and enjoy some outdoor time interspersed with scratches.”

Counselling support from Manitoba Blue Cross

If you're struggling, reach out for help.

Manitoba Blue Cross members with Employee Assistance Program or Individual Assistance Program coverage can get counselling support. Begin the process here.

Unsure of your coverage? Confirm your eligibility in your mybluecross® account.

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