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If you’ve spent time around animals, you know how skilled they are at keeping us
happy and healthy. And if you haven’t experienced the feel-great effects of cuddling with a
cat, dog or other friendly creature, study after study proves myriad benefits of owning dogs,
cats and more. Pets have the power to boost our moods, help us stay in shape and help us connect. After all, how can you resist chatting with someone who stops to pet your pup on a walk or comments on how friendly, happy or cute he is?
In addition to making us feel better mentally and physically, pets may help us interact better with the people around us. In a recent study published in the journal
Applied Developmental Science, by Dr. Megan K. Mueller, researchers asked 567 young adults ages 18 to 26 about their experiences with animals and discovered that pet owners and people who regularly spent time with animals (through activities like horseback riding,
dog walking and animal-assisted therapy) were more likely to report helping others, being involved in community service and taking on leadership roles. What’s more, the researchers found that people who spent time with pets — even if they didn’t own one — tended to feel stronger connections to family members, peers and other people in their communities.
Interacting with animals isn’t just good for grown-ups:
Experts in children’s mental health say spending time with pets can help kids develop self-esteem and confidence, foster a sense of responsibility and empathy, and teach them about unconditional love and loyalty. That’s something Mary Moore, a writer in Austin, Texas, experienced firsthand with her 9-year-old daughter, Scarlett. "We got our first
dog, Holly, when our daughter was 4. We looked at her relationship with the dog as sort of a primer for a sibling. We worked on sharing attention and being a helper and what made the puppy feel happy to help with her sense of empathy.” It worked. “Having a pet was a great trial run for sharing love and taking on responsibility,” Moore says. “Watching her kindness with animals makes us feel good about the possibility of her being a loving and nurturing sister, if not just a good person."
How, exactly, do pets work their magic? Mueller, who is a research assistant professor at the
Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, suggests that pets may act as “social facilitators” for humans. “We still don’t know much about the mechanisms of this relationship, but it could be that animals give people a shared interest to connect around, or it could be that there are parallels between human-animal social relationships and human-human social relationships,” Mueller says. “It is also possible that someone who invests time and effort in caring for an animal is also someone who invests time and effort in his or her community.”
But just as in human relationships, there is one important caveat, Mueller says. “It is not
just owning a pet that matters, but what type of relationship we have with our animals. The quality of the relationship matters."
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