Pets are Paleo - literally. As this study explains, we’ve been keeping pets for at least half a million years, way before we were living on farms and growing grain.
But more importantly, pets also help people in the non-Paleo world manage all the downsides of life in the 21st century. Paleo isn’t really about imitating whatever cavemen did; it’s about finding a way to live that actually meets human needs - needs for good nutrition, needs for sleep and relaxation, needs for companionship, and needs for physical engagement with our world. Human beings evolved to need these things, and unfortunately no amount of sugar, caffeine, and time on Facebook can really substitute.
Today, we’ve shifted away from ways of living that met our basic evolutionary needs, so we have to deal with totally non-Paleo problems like...
- Chronic stress (long commutes, consumer debt, corporate bureaucracy...)
- Widespread social isolation
- Totally sedentary lives
These are just as “non-Paleo” as grains and soybean oil, but arguably even harder to address in our everyday lives. But here’s the good news: research shows that having a pet might actually help you avoid or address some of these huge lifestyle issues. Take a look at 5 big benefits of a furry (or scaly, or feathery) friend below:
1. More animal friends = more human friends
A few years ago, a review and meta-analysis found that social isolation was worse for health than obesity, smoking, heavy drinking, or physical inactivity. Statistically speaking, if you smoke a pack a day but you have a lot of close friends, you’ll probably be in better health than a non-smoker with no friends.
Now enter pets: research actually show that having a pet makes it easier to meet and bond with other people. This study explains that:
- Pets help build networks of pet owners within a community
- People with pets are more likely to be “civically engaged” - to do things like go to community meetings, join cubs, and vote
- More than half of people who own dogs end up meeting their neighbors because of their dog
- 4 out of 5 dog owners chat with other pet owners when they take their dog for a walk
In other words, pets get us to unplug from our own little technological bubbles, look away from Twitter, pull out the earbuds, and actually interact with other human beings - which, as it turns out, is pretty good for our health.
2. Owning a pet is good for your gut bacteria...and your other microbial friends
Did you know that you share gut bacteria with your dog? But it’s not just your gut - owning a dog is also associated with shared bacterial communities in the rest of your body, most notably your skin.
Dog ownership also seems to increase diversity in bacterial communities on your skin and in your gut. This is huge, because diversity is one of the main characteristics of healthy bacteria.
To name one benefit of more diverse gut bacteria, it might be one reason why kids who grow up with pets tend to have fewer allergies. Basically, the gut is a huge part of the immune system, so having better gut health (thanks to living with a pet) might help protect them against immune overreactions to harmless things like cat dander.
It’s not just the immune system, either. The friendly bacteria that live in our guts and on our skin (and in our mouths, and in all kinds of other places) are huge for mental health, cardiovascular health, digestion, and weight loss. By giving your gut bacteria a boost, a beloved pet might be doing a huge amount of good to your health overall.
3. Walking the dog = walking yourself.
Another benefit of pets, especially dogs, is that they encourage people to get more gentle physical activity. You might think that walking the dog wouldn’t count as “exercise,” but most people in the US spend so much time sitting that even taking Fido out every day can be huge.
This study found that people with dogs were more likely to walk at least 150 minutes (2 and a half hours) per week. Another study found that dog owners were 2.5 times more likely to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity. This is also true among older adults.
This study confirmed the effects by tracking dog owners and non-dog owners for a year. On average, dog owners had:
- 22 additional minutes of walking per day
- 2,760 additional steps per day
- Fewer “sitting events”
Of course, you can also run with your dog, which is also pretty great, but for people who don’t like running or have physical limitations that prevent them from running, walking still has tons of health benefits in its own right.
4. Time with pets relieves stress and anxiety
We covered above how pets can get people talking to each other, but as every animal-lover knows just being around your pet is also a kind of companionship. In fact, some people would rather spend time with their pet than with other humans! Of course, there have been studies on this, and the results are pretty positive. Pets seem to help reduce people’s feelings of stress - and considering all the negative effects of stress (everything from mental distressto digestive pain to metabolic damage and weight gain), that’s a huge plus for physical health. Chronic stress is one of the worst ways to wreck your health, and spending time with a pet helps alleviate that stress.
The hormonal magic behind this might be the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, the same hormone released when humans bond with each other. Oxytocin reduces hormonal stress (cortisol) and subjective feelings of anxiety and generally makes you feel good. Studies like this one have shown that pet owners get an oxytocin spike from interacting with their pets (in this case, it was dog owners, and all the dogs had to do was look at them). This is especially true when the dog was a person’s own pet, instead of just some random friendly dog. This paper went into more detail on oxytocin as an explanation for the stress-relieving benefits of pet ownership, if you’re really interested in all the nitty-gritty.
But speaking of stress, there’s a particularly noteworthy link between pets and cardiovascular health:
5. Time with your pet is good for your heart
“Heart” here doesn’t just mean feelings or emotional health. Some research indicates that having a pet is actually good for your physical cardiovascular health.
This review went over the evidence and offered a “unifying hypothesis” linking pet ownership to “improved endothelial function and, thus, lower blood pressure and reduced cardiac arrhythmias.”
On the blood pressure front, pet owners in general tend to have lower blood pressure than non-pet owners, and there’s evidence connecting that specifically to the pets (rather than some other difference). This study found that spending time with a cat reduced blood pressure, more so in cat owners who loved their pet than in volunteers playing with a random cat. And if you ever wondered why doctor’s offices have fish tanks, some studies actually show that watching fish in an aquarium might actually reduce people’s blood pressure.
Another study found that pet owners were more likely than non-pet owners to survive for at least a year after they were hospitalized for acute myocardial infarction (heart attack), although other evidence suggests that this may be specific to dogs.
Pet owners tending to exercise more and be less stressed is probably a big part of this: stress is just as dangerous to your cardiovascular system as it is to everything else. But it’s really cool to see pets linked to specific physical health benefits like that!
All these benefits are related
These benefits of having a pet - getting more exercise, stress relief, social interaction, bacterial diversity, blood pressure reductions - don’t come in isolation. Exercise isn’t just good for you because it burns calories; it also relieves stress and helps control blood pressure. And pet-related physical activity can also include social time with other humans: how many couples do you know who walk the dog together?
Essentially, having a pet helps nudge people’s lives towards a more Paleo direction: less anxiety, more social connections, more activity, and more of those awesome friendly bacteria that do everything for us. Having a pet is definitely a Paleo-friendly lifestyle choice, especially in a world where stress relief and emotional health are hard to come by.