Is there a four-legged fun-loving animal residing at your house? How about a busy bird or an aquarium full of fish? If so, your home is one of the millions that plays host to a family pet.
But did you know that while you're taking care of this faithful friend, your pet is taking care of you as well?
Dozens of studies have examined the effects that companion animals have on people, and they all come to one conclusion—pets make us feel good…plain and simple!
Man's Best Friend
Whether they're feathered or furry, pets provide consistent companionship. They are always ready to give and receive affection, and they never criticize or judge their owners. It's no wonder, then, that animals have a soothing effect on humans.
Extensive research proves that pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than folks without pets. One study even showed a decrease in blood pressure among participants who were doing nothing more than watching fish swim in a tank.
Additional studies have indicated that animals instill a sense of well-being in their owners. Senior citizens who own pets, for example, tend to be more active, visit their doctors less and feel a greater sense of contentment than those without animals.
The explanation of why animals have such a positive impact varies from study to study. Many researchers believe that pets have a calming influence on their owners, which helps lower blood pressure, decrease daily stress and may help them eat healthier (since stress tends to trigger overeating).
Other studies point out that because pets need to be walked and played with regularly, pet owners are more physically active, which improves their health.
Still others say that pets help people become more social and outgoing. Animals can play an important role in sparking conversations between individuals who might not otherwise feel they have much in common.
That can lead to a wider network of friends and emotional support—which definitely increases a feeling of well-being, especially in seniors.
Likewise, it's been proven that people who live alone find great comfort and company in their pets. They are happier, more content and have a more positive outlook on life in general.
Regardless of how pets improve health, the evidence is overwhelming that animals clearly benefit the lives of their owners. And today more than ever, people are making pets a part of the family.
Picking a Pet
From hounds and hamsters to felines and ferrets, there's a pet for just about everyone. Dogs and cats remain the all-time favorites, but small caged animals may be the ideal choice for folks with limited living space or less time to spend with pets.
Rabbits and hamsters, for instance, have distinct personalities and often respond to the voice and touch of their owner. Similarly, birds make excellent companions, and watching fish not only has a calming effect on adults, but keeping an aquarium is a great hobby for kids.
No matter which animal interests you, keep the following in mind in order to select the one that best fits you, your family and your lifestyle.
Do your research. Never buy a pet on impulse. If you have children with allergies, check with your family doctor before adopting a cat or dog.
Some breeds of animals are better suited than others for being around kids. If you're unsure, ask a veterinarian to advise you.
If a particular bird or fish interests you, find out if it requires specific seed or feed. And ask about special housing requirements—the size of the cage or tank needed.
Consider age and size. Remember that puppies and kittens require more attention and exercise than older dogs and cats. You'll likely need to spend more time training younger pets.
Older animals, on the other hand, may have existing medical needs, so be sure to get their health history from the previous owner. Always take a new pet to a veterinarian for a complete checkup.
Larger dogs can be difficult to wash and brush, particularly for people who have arthritis or bad backs. A smaller, lighter animal such as a cat, guinea pig or rabbit might make a better pet.
Be flexible. After giving serious thought to bringing home a new pet, you may decide that your first choice was not the right one after all. Stay flexible. Consider the many other options you have until you find an animal that meets your requirements.
Even if you decide that a pet simply will not fit into your current lifestyle, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy animals and the benefits they offer.
Does your neighbor have a dog? Ask if you can take it for an occasional walk, or offer to look after a friend's cat while he or she is away on vacation.
Join a bird-watching club or start your own. Set a bird feeder outside of your window, then sit back and watch as it attracts a variety of playful wildlife.
You can also visit a local animal shelter or humane society and ask about volunteering. Or, contact a zoological society and become an active member.
No matter how you make animals a part of your life, remember that they are not a substitute for regular health care. While a pet may make you feel better, you still need to address concerns such as stress levels, high blood pressure, etc. by following your doctor's orders.
Finally, if you're already a pet owner, why not give your pet a little extra attention today? Grab his leash and take Fido for a long walk—you'll make both his life and yours a little bit healthier!