Pets can be a lot of work, but they can also be lovable, slobbering stress fighters that are good for both our physical and our mental health.

Even the American Heart Association has said in a scientific statement that there is a strong link between pet ownership, and a lower risk of heart disease.

What is it about all that unconditional furry love that can make us healthier? Here’s a look at what scientists have learned so far.


Boost self-esteem

There’s nothing like the feeling of a happy, bouncing dog greeting you at the door or a cat that weaves through your legs to welcome you back. Those warm feelings you feel are not just your imagination. Lots of research has shown that pets can improve the mental wellbeing of their owners and bring them a sense of peace.

One large study published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that based on surveys, pet owners have greater self-esteem, are less lonely, more conscientious, more extraverted, and tended to be less fearful than non-owners.

The exception were those who “anthropomorphized” their pets -- that is, they said their pets had human-like traits, such as being thoughtful or sympathetic. These pet owners tended to be more depressed and less happy.

Prevent allergies and colds

Allergy and colds prevention

Expectant parents sometimes consider giving Fluffy or Rex away before the baby arrives, but research has found that babies who grow up in homes with pets are less likely to get sick or develop pet allergies than children who live pet-free.

One study that tracked 566 kids found that kids who lived with indoor cats or dogs in their first year of life were half as likely as kids without pets to become allergic to the animals by the time they were 18.

Another study in the journal Pediatrics looked at 397 babies born in Finland and found that those living with dogs developed 31 per cent fewer colds and respiratory tract infections during their first year of life. They also had 44 per cent fewer ear infections and received 29 per cent fewer antibiotic prescriptions than babies without dogs.

In both studies, the researchers noticed only links, not proof that pets were responsible for the better health. Still the Finnish researchers think the so-called “hygiene hypothesis” might explain the findings.

They say that pet ownership could expose babies to the microbes that pets carry on them and that they bring in from outdoors, which could fortify babies’ immune systems so they are more resistant to common germs.

So perhaps doggy kisses might not be so bad for kids after all.


Get us moving

Dog owners get lots of exercise, right? Sadly, it’s often not true, with one survey in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health finding that more than a third of dog owners walk their dogs for less than 10 minutes a day.

But that same survey, based on almost 6,000 people, found that dog owners were 69 per cent more likely than non-dog owners to get outside for any physical activity. As well, 27 per cent of dog owners do at least 150 minutes of walking a week -- which is the amount of moderate physical activity that experts recommend for good health.

So how to get those other dog owners walking?

One small study found that having vets write specific exercise prescriptions to dog owners, reminding them that dogs need exercise and ordering them to go for 30 minutes walks every day, not only helped the dogs lose weight, it helped their owners drop pounds too.

To ease cancer care

Comfort during cancer care

People undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for late-stage cancer often have a hard time getting through the difficult treatments. But one study found that patients can get an emotional lift just by spending a few minutes patting a dog before their treatments.

A study earlier this year looked at 37 cancer patients in New York City who were undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for head and neck cancers. More than 80 per cent had Stage 4 cancer.

All the patients agreed to have 15-minute visits with a therapy dog right before each of their treatment sessions. After six weeks, the research team then asked them about how they were feeling.

Not surprisingly, the patients' physical well-being had deteriorated. Yet their emotional and social well-being increased; many said it was because of the dogs.

One patient told the team, “I greatly benefitted from the presence of the dogs” adding that the pets “dispelled” his worries. Another said he probably would have stopped his treatment, but kept coming back because he wanted to see the dog.

Act as trained detectives

Act as health detectives

Dogs often have an odd way of sensing things about us without even being able to speak our language. Scientists have noticed that too and have found ways to train dogs to figure out when we need help.

Diabetic alert dogs, for example, can use their sense of smell to detect the subtle scents that diabetics emit when they experience a dangerous drop in blood sugar. The dogs can then alert patients to eat or drink something sweet to get their sugar back up, or activate an alert system.

For people with epilepsy, there are seizure alert dogs. The dogs aren’t trained to sense oncoming seizures -- though some can. Instead, their main job is to help their handlers during and after a seizure by staying close to prevent injury, alerting caretakers, or activating an emergency call system..

And scientists are just beginning to understand how dogs can help with cancer detection. A study last year in the Journal of Urology reported on two dogs in Italy that were trained to sniff urine samples for cancer signs. The dogs were able to detect different stages of the cancer among 900 urine samples, with accuracy rates between 96 and 100 per cent.