This post by Dana Blinder originally appeared in TODAY on Jun. 23, 2013
1. They relax you
Petting your cat or dog may be noticeably enjoyable for them, but the act can relax you, as well. Moore suggests petting with a purpose to increase the release of feel-good hormones in animals and humans. “Give your dog or cat a head-to-tail therapeutic massage by running hand over hand through the body,” she says. Your touch relaxes the animal and releases feel-good endorphins in you, reducing your heart rate. A therapeutic pet massage can also be used to regularly check animals for fleas or suspicious bumps, or to relieve muscle knots, says Moore.
2. They may reduce blood pressure
Communicating with animals may lower your blood pressure and improve your overall health. Moore suggests engaging animals in “happy talk,” or speaking in an upbeat tone. “Happy talk or laughter around animals releases hormones in humans that lower blood pressure, and make animals feel better too,” she says. Thinking happy thoughts when talking to your pet or speaking to birds and squirrels in your backyard may seem silly, but the conversation can put you at ease (even if it’s one-sided).
3. They’re therapeutic
Animals from dogs to rabbits are often used for therapy in hospitals and nursing homes. “I’ve taken my dog to a few hospitals and schools, and it’s amazing how people are reluctant to talk to people but will open up to an animal,” Moore says. There’s something rejuvenating, renewing about coming home to a friendly animal that greets you like a rock star,” she says. Moore suggests that the strong human-to-animal bond could be related to fond childhood memories. Even if it’s a just a spider, people often feel more comfortable being themselves around animals, says Moore. (Though admittedly, spiders aren’t for everyone.)
4. They can improve human nutrition
Eating alongside bad company may decrease your appetite, but eating in the company of an animal may improve your eating habits. “In nursing homes, if there’s a fish tank where people are eating, seeing those fish actually motivates some residents to eat,” says Moore. In some cases, the companionship of animals has helped the nutritional habits of their humans. For example, she says, research has shown that recipients of the Meals on Wheels program who were allowed to eat near their pets improved some of their eating patterns.
5. They improve your relationships
A good relationship with your animal friends may spill over into better relations with humans. An animal doesn’t care who you are or what outfit you’re wearing; they want to play and be around you, says Moore. This carefree, playful attitude, she says, has made many animal-lovers more prone to live in the moment. According to a 1997 study at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, observing animals in nature can teach valuable characteristics like patience, and help restore mental energy. Taking care of an animal can also teach responsibility and stimulate feelings of trust, openness, and companionship.