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The power of pets

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The Power of Pets

Al Waller: According the to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey, pet ownership is on the rise and seventy percent of U.S. households actually own a pet. It’s becoming increasingly evident that pets have a great impact on our day-to-day lives, with more than half (64%) of pet owners expecting to spend more time with their pets after the pandemic than before. Today, most pet owners dote on their pets and enthusiastically share the immediate joys that come with having companion animals in their lives—but there may even be health benefits that come along with pet ownership.

Welcome back to ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & WealthSM. I’m your host, Al Waller. With us today to discuss the compelling health benefits of owning a pet is Mihaela Vincze, public health expert for nonprofit Transamerica Institute®. She will walk us through the physical and mental health benefits of pets, how they help us to be more social, and how to budget for their care.

But before we dive in, if you would like us to present an episode about a specific topic, please reach out to [email protected]. We would love to get your input!

Mihaela, welcome back to the show today.

Mihaela Vincze: Hi – good to be here.

Al Waller: As I mentioned, pet owners in general really enjoyed cuddling or simply admiring their pets. So, what kind of health benefits come from pet ownership?

Mihaela Vincze: There are quite a few. To start us off, people with pets tend to have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets. Playing with a cat, dog, or other pet can elevate levels of “feel good” hormones, like dopamine and serotonin, which can help you relax and feel calm—and provide a buffer against stress. This is especially important in today’s world, with constant news barraging us with distressing reports. Reducing your stress by doing activities like being in the presence of an animal, or watching fish swim in a tank may help lower high blood pressure. One study found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.

Al Waller: That's incredible – it's interesting you referenced watching fish swim around may lead to lower blood pressure. In quite a few doctors’ offices that I've visited over the years – they have aquariums in their waiting rooms and coincidence or not, this may be another incentive to buy one, especially if you suffer from high blood pressure.

What other health benefits could be derived from pet ownership?

Mihaela Vincze: Studies have shown that dog owners in particular are far more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements than those without pets. For instance, a study at the Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago found that walking an overweight dog helped both the animal and their human shed pounds. Researchers also found that dogs provided support similar to that of an exercise buddy, but with greater consistency and without any negative impacts. (Your dog would not text you in the morning to let you know they are going to sleep in.) And that’s not all— dog owners also report lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, both of which are indicators of heart disease.

Al Waller: I agree, pets can absolutely help motivate to make healthy lifestyle changes. I've witnessed friends who have trimmed down some pretty serious girth once a dog was introduced to the household, especially those puppies. They help to really keep you moving.

Aside from the daily exercise – can a pet’s mere presence offer any other benefits?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes. Pets offer great company—there is no better feeling than coming home to an animal who loves you unconditionally. It is no wonder that they’re sometimes brought into hospitals or nursing homes to help reduce patients’ stress and anxiety.

Al Waller: Yes, I've witnessed that firsthand – dogs being introduced into hospitals or senior centers. It's really pretty cool to see how pets console and comfort, especially those who are the most vulnerable.

Well, how can pets help us become more social?

Mihaela Vincze: They really can help us stay connected in our communities, which is really important, especially as we get older. Pets serve as wonderful tools to help us spark conversations and potentially meet new people. I have interacted with plenty of people just by asking to say hello to their pets!

Al Waller: You're exactly right on that – and as I think I've referenced before, I have a “grand doggie” named Charlie. He's an Italian Mastiff – very mellow, beautiful beast and indeed a great conversation starter. I mean, people just can't seem to get enough of him, wanting to pet and hug him. I've actually had some folks say, “I'd really like to paint your dog’s portrait”. So, that's pretty cool.

But seriously, is there any pet in particular that should take credit for the health benefits?

Mihaela Vincze: While people with pets often do experience greater health benefits than those without, a pet does not necessarily have to be a dog or a cat—which is often the type of pet that comes to mind when they think about having an animal in general.

There are really all kinds of pets out there for people with all sorts of preferences! For instance, a bird or rabbit can be wonderful additions to someone’s home for added social interaction and companionship, especially if you don’t have too much space. Companionship is really important because it can also help prevent illnesses and even add years to your life, while isolation and loneliness can trigger symptoms of depression.

Al Waller: Well, it sounds like pets have a lot of upside and as you point out, a great impact on our mental health. Have you got any other examples of how pets can improve our mental wellbeing?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes, pets may help boost vitality, because they encourage playfulness, laughter, cuddles, and exercise—which can all really impact our mental wellbeing, energy and immune systems.

  • Pets are also found to promote a stronger sense of identity in pet owners with mental health conditions.
  • Pets provide routine which strengthens stable cognition.
  • Pets provide a disruption from symptoms of mental health issues, such as negative thoughts or rumination.

Al Waller: Well, Mihaela, I had not considered pets might produce those kinds of benefits. But when you think about it. It really does make a lot of sense.

So next question, if pets are good for older adults, should they go out and adopt them?

Mihaela Vincze: Adopting a pet is an individual choice, so that’s entirely up to them. But it may have benefits for those who are older. According to a 2021 survey published by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, 83% of baby boomers and 82% of greatest/silent generations reported more personal experience with mental health improvements from pets than millennials (62%) and generation X (72%).

Al Waller: Well, that's interesting but at the same time also promising. So then, how would an older adult go about adopting a pet?

Mihaela Vincze: There are some programs that can help reduce the costs that come with adopting a pet. For instance, the Seniors for Seniors program matches senior companion animals from shelters with senior adults. Senior adopters may also receive a discount off the adoption fee, which includes things like vaccinations, microchipping, and the spay/neuter surgery. To see if this program is available in your local area, check with your local animal shelter.

Al Waller: I’ve got to tell you I really like the sound of that initiative. Now, I know it's going to depend on the animal, but how much should someone plan or for budgeting a pet?

Mihaela Vincze: In 2021, the average cost of owning a pet was around $700 to $1,100 per year, depending on the type of pet and its size, according to the ASPCA. This cost does not include extra fees like boarding and pet sitting. However, since costs do vary, it may be a good idea to do your homework and prepare your finances for a pet by doing things like:

  • Determining how pet-related monthly expenses will affect your budget.
    • Will owning a pet be something that you can afford? On top of the startup costs, have you thought through monthly expenses like food, toys, treats, grooming, and other costs?
  • Shopping around for affordable high-quality vendors who you may need future services from.
    • Think of vets, groomers, pet pharmacies, and others that you’d like to have in your rolodex of experts to turn to when you need these services.

Al Waller: Those are all really great points, and I might add – a lot to consider – because you're in essence welcoming another member to your family.

Well, any other recommendations?

Mihaela Vincze: Yes! Just like for people – think about investing in prevention. Consider getting your pet the necessary vaccinations and preventative medicines to prevent costly health problems in the future.

You may also want to put a portion of your emergency fund aside for that unexpected vet bill. So, if you are worried about not being able to afford big vet bills, consider pet insurance. Pet insurance costs vary, but it's often based on zip code, the species, the breed, and the age of the animal.

Al Waller: Those are all great considerations for responsible pet ownership. I think it is fair to emphasize two words: responsible and ownership. Pets are for keeps and not rentals or temporary adornments.

While we've talked about the ways pets can contribute to our health, do pets ever cause illness?

Mihaela Vincze: Great question. Pets carry lots of germs. So, it’s important to always wash your hands with soap and water after you are done handling them. This includes after feeding them, cleaning up their areas or habitats, and after playing with them.

Al Waller: Well, thank you Mihaela. These are great points all around. At the end of the day, when you tally up the benefits of unconditional companionship and love, it's almost impossible not to justify adopting a pet – especially with the side benefits to our health and daily lives and especially for our older community members. So, thanks again.

If you’d like to check out any of the source materials mentioned today, visit transamericainstitute.org/podcast to review the episode’s transcript.

And, don’t miss our recent episodes on healthy vision, financial literacy, and men’s health screenings.

If you have comments, feedback, or topic ideas, please reach out to [email protected].

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is brought to you by Transamerica Institute, a nonprofit private foundation dedicated to identifying, researching, and educating the public about health and wellness, employment, financial literacy, longevity, and retirement. You can find our weekly podcast on WYPR’s website and mobile app, wherever you get your podcasts, and at transamericainstitute.org/podcast.

ClearPath – Your Roadmap to Health & Wealth is produced by the Transamerica Institute with assistance from WYPR.

Until the next time, I’m your host Al Waller. Stay safe, be well and thanks for listening.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, ERISA, tax, investment, legal, medical, or financial advice or guidance.

Al Waller is a long-time Baltimore native and employment expert with a 30-year career in leading and advising locally and globally based corporations on matters including: Talent Acquisition and Retention, Employee Relations, Training and Development.
Mihaela Vincze is a public health expert and experienced health care educator. Serving as Transamerica Institute’s health care content developer, she shares insights on health and wellness on ClearPath—Your Roadmap to Health and WealthSM. Mihaela earned her master’s and bachelor’s degrees in public health at California State University, Northridge.