The joy of pets: how animal companionship can impact our health and wellbeing
Walking a dog, playing with a cat, stroking a rabbit or watching fish swimming – all pets bring us joy. But did you know that animal companionship can also benefit our health and wellbeing? It’s actually good for us to spend time around animals of all shapes and sizes. We explore why in this guide.
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How popular are pets?
It’s increasingly common to own a pet. According to the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA), it is estimated that 59% of UK households had a pet in 2021, up from 45% in 2018.
The 10 most popular pets last year were:
|Pet||Population in millions||% of households|
|Tortoises and turtles||0.4||1%|
Cats and dogs are the most popular pets by some way. But whether you have a furry, feather or scaled friend in your home, it’s likely they make you feel better. According to the 2022 PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report:
- 94% of pet owners said that owning a pet makes them happy
- 84% of pet owners said that owning a pet improves their mental health
- 84% of pet owners said that owning a pet makes them less lonely
- 65% of pet owners said that owning a pet improves their physical health
Why are pets good for us?
Most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals, but what’s the reasoning behind it? We take a closer look.
- The impact on wellbeing:
- Stroking dogs, cats, or other pets can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which make us feel good and relaxed. Serotonin is a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in the brain and throughout your body, and it’s believed to act as a mood stabiliser. Dopamine is another important brain chemical that influences your mood, particularly around feelings of reward and motivation.
- Spending time with animals can reduce stress levels. In fact, dog owners can have lower blood pressure than non-owners, which may be due to the fact dog owners tend to go on walks, according to some older research.
- The impact on physical health. Pets are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost your mood and improve your cardiovascular fitness levels.
- Pets promote positive social interactions. Most pets are a great talking point, but dog owners in particular will often stop and talk to each other on walks.
- Pets provide structure and routine. Pets need a regular feeding, care and exercise schedule. Having a consistent routine keeps an animal balanced and calm, but it has benefits for owners too. It’s a motivation to stick to a routine and gives you a reason to get out of bed to feed, exercise, and care for your pets.
More than anything, our pets become our friends. They comfort us when we’re feeling our worst and make us laugh with joy in our happiest moments. Not only do they boost our mood and improve our health, an incredible bond is formed between pets and their families. There are some additional benefits felt by the youngest and oldest owners, though, which we explore further below.
Further benefits of pets for families and children
Pets can also play an important role in child development, including supporting with:
Pets are non-judgmental. They offer unconditional love, are great listeners and won’t criticise. This can be helpful for the self-confidence of kids, especially if they feel isolated or misunderstood, which can happen throughout childhood.
When it comes to social skills, kids can learn a lot from their pets. Dogs, in particular, are known for their ability to build bonds with people. They provide unconditional acceptance, which can be very reassuring for kids who are shy or feeling insecure. And when kids witness their pets behaving calmly in different situations – whether it’s meeting new people or going to the vet – they learn how to model that behaviour themselves. Pets can teach kids a lot about how to interact with the world around them.
Not only can caring for a pet help children develop a sense of ownership and pride, they also offer an opportunity for children to learn about responsibility and empathy. Through daily caretaking activities like feeding, walking, and playing games, kids learn the importance of responsibility and patience.
A pet can give a family a chance to spend more quality time together, as well as having a shared interest to talk about and bond over.
Animals can boost immunity
Pets can lower our risk of developing allergies. In particular, dog exposure in early life has been associated with lowering the risk for subsequent allergies when children get older.
Further benefits of pets for older individuals
While the joy of owning a pet doesn’t change with age, there are some benefits which older people may enjoy more:
As people age, they may find themselves living a more solitary life. Their friends and family members may have moved away or passed away, so caring for an animal can provide much-needed companionship. This companionship can come in a range of shapes and sizes, depending on what type of lifestyle someone can offer.
Research has shown that both pet owners and non-pet owners:
- Agree interaction that pets can help reduce loneliness (85% of respondents)
- Agree human-pet interactions can help address social isolation (76%)
- Believe human-animal interaction is good for their community (72%)
If you are a senior individual and living on your own, you can find useful tips on home safety, accessibility options, types of independent housing, managing finances for peace of mind via our guide on independent living for seniors.
Routine and purpose
A pet can also provide a sense of purpose, as they rely on their owner for care and attention. Most animals tend to thrive on a routine, being exercised and fed at similar times each day so it gives a structure to your day. In return for all of this care, pets can provide unconditional love and affection.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, pets can keep you active. Having an animal that encourages exercise and playfulness is useful at any age, but can be more important to have encouragement as you get older. Dogs especially can give their owners an excuse to get outside for a walk each day.
Deciding whether to get a pet
Although pets can bring a lot of joy into our lives, they’re a big commitment. The amount of time and effort involved with different animals may vary, but owning any pet is hard work. According to the PAW report, 30% of pet owners said that owning a pet is hard work and 16% said it makes them stressed. Pet ownership is a big responsibility. You do have to invest time, energy and money into your animals. So, deciding to get a pet should be a decision you take your time over. Think about:
- How much time you have. Certain pets, such as dogs, will need a lot more of your time – to exercise them and keep them company, for example. In addition, all pets need the opportunity to play, and time to be set aside for them to be groomed and cared for.
- How much space you have. Do you have the room to accommodate a pet and all of its belongings? Hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs may seem small, for example, but the right size cages and runs can take up a lot of space. Most free-roaming pets need their own space to retreat to as well.
- The type of home environment you can offer. You also need to think about your current lifestyle and whether a pet fits into that – for example, whether you have a family, your working arrangements, your priorities in your free time and so on. Think into the future too as that may influence what animal may suit.
- Your budget. It’s important to investigate not only the upfront costs of owning a pet, but factor in costs of looking after the animal – such as food, vet bills, pet insurance, and so on.
Your thoughts about each of these points may steer you towards different pets or you may decide to wait until your lifestyle changes.
Other ways to spend more time around animals
If you don’t think a pet is right for you at the moment, that’s ok. There are plenty of other ways you can benefit from spending time with other pets or animals. They include:
Offer our time to friends and family with pets
A lot of people with pets would love you to spend time with them. Whether that’s joining them on a dog walk or volunteering to house sit and look after their small furries while they’re on holiday, you’ll definitely be helping them out – while enjoying your own time around pets.
If you don’t have any friends or family with pets, try volunteering with The Cinnamon Trust. It’s a charity which helps older individuals or anyone with a health condition or disability that means they can’t walk their dog as easily anymore.
Volunteer at animal charities
Animal charities are regularly looking for volunteers to help. You’ll find charities of all shapes and sizes, including those who focus on specific animals or even breeds. Start your search locally to see what opportunities are available.
Expect to get your hands dirty, though. Charities may need support in all areas of animal care - including exercise, cleaning up after them, grooming, feeding and so on. Ask about the time commitment required and decide whether you can help.
Visit responsible zoos, reserves or animal parks
If you’d like to see animals you rarely get a chance to, zoos and animal parks are a great place to visit. It’s just important to visit and support responsible places. In other words, zoos focused on conservation efforts, wildlife education, and other efforts to encourage appropriate interaction and responsible behaviours with wild animals.
In the UK
If you're looking for a fun day out that the whole family can enjoy, why not visit one of the UK's many zoos, reserves or animal parks? With so many amazing places to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are just a few:
- London Zoo. London Zoo is one of the oldest and most famous zoos in the world. Home to over 16,000 animals, it's the perfect place to learn about wildlife from all over the globe.
- Highland Wildlife Park. Set in the stunning Cairngorms National Park, the park is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including European bison, Przewalski's horses, and Scottish Wildcats. Visitors can also enjoy a range of activities, such as ranger-led walks and talks, safari rides, and hands-on experiences with some of the resident animals.
- Knowsley Safari Park. How about getting up close and personal with some wildlife? Here, you can drive through the park to see some of the animals in their habitats – many will come up close or you may even get a monkey jump on your car.
Around the world
- San Diego Zoo, California. This zoo is home to more than 3,700 animals, representing over 650 species. In addition to educational exhibits, the zoo offers opportunities to feed and pet some of the resident animals.
- Kruger National Park, South Africa. One of the largest game reserves in the world, visitors can explore the park on foot, by car, or even by hot air balloon. With over 500 bird species and a significant number of mammals, including lions, elephants, and rhinos, Kruger National Park is a must-see for any animal lover.
- Sydney Zoo, Australia. With over 350 species of animals, the zoo offers something for everyone. The zoo is also home to a variety of unique exhibits, such as the Nocturnal House, where creatures that are only active at night live. Educational programs and events also run throughout the year, making it a great place to learn about wildlife and conservation.
- Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, Japan. Considered one of the biggest and best aquariums in the world, Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is home to over 75,000 marine animals, including whale sharks, manta rays, and sea turtles. The aquarium also features a unique coral breeding program that is helping to preserve this vital ecosystem.
Take part in animal activities
Have you ever wanted to try something new? New unique animal experiences often crop up and offer fun ways of connecting with animals. Some of the best include:
Yoga with dogs is a great way to spend time around animals and benefit from their calming presence. Dogs are natural yoga partners because they’re non-judgmental and are always present in the moment. They also provide gentle pressure and warmth, which can help to relax the muscles and ease tension. Plus, dogs are always happy to cuddle.
Falconry experiences are a great way to benefit from spending time around animals. Not only do you get to spend time in the company of these magnificent creatures, but you also get to learn about their care and training. Falconry experiences offer a unique opportunity to connect with nature and appreciate the beauty of the animal kingdom.
Alpacas are sure to put a smile on your face – they’re friendly, gentle and curious by nature. These South American natives are typically used to being around people, so they make great walking companions. Being around alpacas can help reduce stress levels, lower blood pressure, and improve mental well-being. Walking an alpaca is also a great way to get some fresh air and exercise. And, of course, it's simply fun.
Riding helps to develop balance, coordination, and muscle strength, and can also be a great way to relieve stress. Horses are social creatures, and spending time with them can help to reduce anxiety and improve moods. In addition, horses require regular grooming and exercise, which can provide an opportunity for bonding. Whether you're an experienced equestrian or a complete beginner, horse riding is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and the company of these wonderful animals.
Visiting a farm and spending time with animals can be a very enjoyable experience. Farms offer a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and to relax in a more natural setting. And, of course, there’s the opportunity to spend time with or care for animals such as chickens, pigs, sheep, cows and more.