by Jo Brilhart, RN, Psy.D, LPC

People have bonded with animals for thousands of years. One of the oldest pieces of evidence of this was discovered in Israel when a 12,000 year old skeleton was found with its hand resting on a 6-month old wolf pup skeleton.

Most of us can attest to the soothing feeling of petting a furry friend or the warmth of seeing them looking at us with loving eyes, but did you know that they really are good for our physical and mental health? Scientific studies have shown that animals have significant positive effects on humans.

Some benefits of pet ownership include:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Decreased feelings of loneliness
  • Reduced stress
  • Increased feelings of calm and relaxation
  • Increased social interaction

Pets have even been known to increase survival in heart attack patients and decrease visits to the doctor for people over 65. Watching fish in an aquarium has been shown to reduce pulse rate and decrease muscle tension.

The benefits of spending time with animals have become so well known that many nursing homes now have cats, dogs, rabbits, or birds as full-time resident pets. Pet therapy programs are numerous, and many therapy animals are routine visitors to children and adults in hospitals, hospices, and a variety of other medical settings.

Pets can provide us with unconditional love and affection and fulfill a basic human need for touch. A pet doesn’t have to be a dog or cat. Horses, rabbits, fish, turtles, birds, lizards, and even rats are pets for many people.

If you don’t have a pet of your own, don’t despair! There are other ways of connecting with animals:

  • Visit or volunteer at a local animal shelter
  • Offer to walk or care for a neighbor’s pet
  • Visit or volunteer at a nearby therapeutic riding ranch
  • Schedule a session with a pet therapist or equine therapist

Holding, stroking, or cuddling a loving animal can be soothing, boost mood, and relieve loneliness. The love we give to animals fills our own hearts and can help us feel a sense of relaxation, peace, and healing.