Fur, scales, feathers, fins, or shells: no matter the shape, size, or species, owning a pet confers important health benefits. By sheer number, fish are the most common pet in the United States, followed by cats, dogs, birds, small animals (think hamsters, mice, and guinea pigs), and reptiles. My parade of pets through the years includes several dogs, a cat, hamsters, mice, a chameleon, a turtle (pre-salmonella scare), fish, and guinea pigs. Loved them all.

Research demonstrates that pet ownership provides a number of perks:

Better Health. Interacting with pets or merely watching them (assuming they aren’t tearing up your sofa or chewing through a wall) can lower your blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones. Petting a dog or cat releases endorphins and other “feel good hormones” such as serotonin and oxytocin from our brains. Pets can lower your chances of dying from a heart attack, lower levels of depression, and, particularly for older adults, they help keep your brain sharp, by forcing you to stay “present” when caring for them. They can be a distraction when you’re having a rough day—they don’t care that you’ve been fired or have gained five pounds.

Live-in Companionship. Loneliness can kill. Studies have shown the negative effects of loneliness are comparable to smoking, and about as dangerous as being obese. The band Three Dog Night was really on to something when they sang, “One is the loneliest number.” About one in four older adults live alone in the United States. Pets can be loyal friends. Most of us who have/had a pet would admit to unabashedly loving our pets (I certainly would).

Sense of purpose. We need something to wake up for each day. Caring for a pet checks that box. Pets rely on us for food, shelter, play, and their medical needs. Being a “pet parent” may add more structure to our lives, which is a positive thing. Pets give us something to think and care about beyond ourselves.

Exercise. Depending on the type of pet you have, you may become more active and more social. For example, research shows that dog owners walk an average of 22 minutes more per day than non-dog owners, and dogs won’t make up excuses about why they can’t exercise with you!

Social. Walking your dog provides opportunities for meeting people, and there’s a built-in topic for starting a conversation – right on the end of your leash. The proliferation of dog parks (they’ve grown by 20% over the last five years), provides an additional way to socialize your pet – and you.

Protection. Of course a dog, screaming bird, growling cat, or other pet that makes noise when alarmed or senses something out of the ordinary can help protect his or her “pet parent.”

Fewer allergies in children. Babies born into households with cats and dogs have fewer allergies, in general, than those not born into pet households, according to a study in the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy. It’s thought that early exposure to pet dander and pet bacteria builds up immunity in children.

Jan Cullinane is an award-winning retirement author, speaker, and consultant. Her current book is The Single Woman’s Guide to Retirement (AARP/Wiley).

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