It’s estimated that there are close to 90 million dogs and 95 million cats in the United States. That adds up to a lot of people who own a pet, and for a very good reason. Pet owners know that having an animal living with you can be a wonderful, life-enhancing experience, and most pets are as much a part of the family as the humans. What you might not have realized is that beyond the pleasures of having pets, they can actually improve your health and do you a lot of good.

Physical health

If you have a dog, you’ll need to keep it exercised. Depending on the breed, you may have to take it for a lot of walks – working breeds need a good few hours a day to stay happy and healthy. It can often be difficult to motivate yourself to exercise. However, if you have a dog, there’s no excuse for not getting up and about. Many people find walking or running with their dog is far more enjoyable than pounding the streets alone, and the animal’s delight at being out and about with you helps you achieve more than you might have on your own. Horseback-riding is a great whole-body exercise as you use a lot of muscles sitting correctly on a horse and maintaining your balance. If you have your own horse, the physical effort of caring for it, such as cleaning the stall, grooming, leading in and out to the field, can be quite considerable, and you could easily be doing the equivalent of an hour in the gym each day.

Mental health

Any pet owner who’s suffered from a mental health problem will know how much of a comfort an animal can be when you are unwell. A dog who will cuddle up with you and love you no matter how you feel or what you look like acts as a balm for the soul, and however low you feel, their joy at seeing you and pleasure at being with you gives a glimmer of hope through the darkness. Studies have shown that petting an animal can reduce stress and lower blood pressure, and there are programs that use therapy dogs to visit hospitals and care facilities. You can talk to your pet and tell them anything that’s on your mind, with no danger of rejection or misunderstanding. Talking about the worries in your life to your cat may not be as effective as talking to loved ones or professionals, but it always helps to get the words out rather than bottling everything up. If you have anxiety or social phobias, getting out with the support of your dog can act as a reassurance that you will be ok, and you have a friend with you. If things seem so bad that you feel you can’t cope, then getting away from your environment and heading into the wilderness for a couple of hours on your horse can be a welcome breathing space, and will give you a chance to divert your mind and get some peace.

Children and seniors

Children benefit enormously from contact with animals. Kids who grow up with pets are less likely to suffer from allergies, and looking after an animal teaches them a lot about caring and responsibility. Children go through sad times and troubles, and teenagers have an especially hard time as hormones rage around their bodies causing all sorts of emotional upheavals. The companionship of a pet can be a great comfort to children when they feel low, and walking the dog or going for a ride is a perfect opportunity to have some quality family time together. Seniors may have lost partners or be unable to see their families very often, or they could be finding it hard to adjust to life in retirement. The comfort provided by pets and the caring involved with owning an animal helps with motivation and a sense of purpose. Add to this the pleasure of stroking their soft fur and hearing them purr with happiness, and you can see why so many seniors own pets.

If you’re new to pet ownership

There are plenty of websites that cover pet care for all different kinds of animals, or you could talk to a veterinarian or animal shelter to discuss what’s involved. You need to be honest about your circumstances, e.g., where you live, whether you have a yard, whether you will be around all day or out at work. Different animals also take different levels of commitment, so a dog will need daily exercise, grooming, possibly bathing and clipping, and will always be wanting to do things with you. A cat, on the other hand, spends most of its time sleeping or amusing itself playing and hunting. They might come to you for a cuddle now and then, but most cats don’t exhibit the loyal behavior of a dog. That could make them perfect for you if you don’t have the extra time it takes to look after a dog properly. You also need to work out how much your pet will cost to keep, make sure you can get a pet sitter or have a good kennel locally for when you are away, and get them insured against illness and accident.

Possible problems

You might find you like the idea of a pet but are worried about some of the less enjoyable aspects of pet ownership. What goes in must come out as they say, and dealing with your pet’s deposits is not high on the list of desirable tasks. The good news is that some problems that used to be very hard to deal with are now a thing of the past, for example giving animals a pill could be a real hassle. Cats disappearing in a whirl of fur and hisses were not uncommon at worming time. Thankfully things are a lot easier now, with many drugs being administered via a spot-on to the skin and products such as pill pockets from VetIQ taking the misery out of administering pills. If you are worried about taking on too much, there are services that can help with anything you might need, from dog-walking to house-sitting, grooming to tank cleaning, so you should be able to find assistance should you need it.

If you are thinking of getting a pet, make sure you do some research on the best kind of animal and the most suitable breed for you and your lifestyle. Make animal shelters your first port of call, as there are always pets of all kinds needing good new homes. Find the right pet, and you could soon be appreciating all the wonderful things animals bring to your life.