Pets and your health: Pros and cons to keep in mind

Pets and your health: Pros and cons to keep in mind

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Having a furry friend to play with and snuggle up to must be good for your health, right? Well, yes and no. 

Research has shown there are numerous physical and mental health benefits to having a pet — but there can be some downsides too.

In recognition of National Pet Day on April 11, we’ve rounded up a look at some ways pets can affect your health and well-being, for better or worse.

Pets can promote exercise and heart health

Research has shown that having a pet, especially a dog, can not only warm your heart but make it healthier. 

Studies have shown pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and are more likely to maintain a healthy weight, according to a Harvard Medical School report. Dog owners are also more likely to get the two and a half hours of exercise each week that experts recommend.

This research supports previous findings from the American Heart Association that showed having a pet, and particularly dog ownership, is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, perhaps due to dog owners being more likely to engage in regular physical activity by walking them. 

Pets can support mental health

Pets can be good for your mental health too, bringing psychological benefits such as reducing loneliness and easing stress, anxiety and depression.

“When a dog owner looks into a dog’s eyes and pets the dog, the owner will release oxytocin, the love hormone,” Dr. Elizabeth Frates previously told CBS News. Plus, petting a dog can reduce a person’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, she noted.

This helps explain why pet therapy programs have grown in popularity in past decades. Research has found that patients are happier, more alert, active and less anxious when a pooch pops by during hospital treatments. 

But despite all the positive aspects of having a pet in your life, there are also a few potential pitfalls to keep in mind:

Pets can disrupt your sleep

Getting good sleep is important for your health, and pets can sometimes interfere.

A recent study published in the journal Human-Animal Interactions found pet ownership is linked with poorer sleep. The findings showed having a dog was associated with greater odds of having a sleep disorder and having trouble sleeping, while having a cat was associated with a higher chance of having leg jerks.

Person Sleeping With Chocolate Labrador On Bed

Sabena L / EyeEm via Getty Images

Pet parents who share their bed with their beloved animals may not be surprised by these findings — especially if your dog takes up half the bed or your cat likes to take late-night pounces at your feet.

“While the causal nature of pet ownership on sleep quality and sleep disorders was unable to be established, the results of the study are consistent with previous studies that found that pet ownership has a negative impact on sleep quality,” the study noted, suggesting further research on where exactly people’s pets sleep and the affect it has on sleep, which was not specified in this study.

Sick pets can lead to “caregiver burden”

As much joy as a pet can bring, the emotional toll can be high when that cherished dog or cat falls ill. Caring for an ailing animal often ends up placing a significant “caregiver burden” on its owner, a study from 2017 found.

Essentially, it’s the heavy emotional toll one can experience when the act of caring stretches a person’s physical, emotional or even financial capacities to the breaking point, study author Mary Beth Spitznagel previously explained to CBS News

“We found that individuals with a chronically or terminally ill pet showed greater caregiver burden compared to those with a healthy pet,” Spitznagel said. “Most pet owners consider their pet to be part of the family, so it was not a surprise that the pet caregiver’s emotional response would be similar in nature to the response we often see in people providing care for a sick family member.”

–Amy Kraft and Alan Mozes contributed to this report.

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