From lower levels of stress and depression to reduced risk of heart disease, owning a pet is a healthy choice, says Lisa Salmon

If you're thinking of getting a pet, you'll probably be weighing up the pros of having a cuddly (or even scaly) new friend, with the cons of having to look after it. But have you considered the health benefits of owning a pet?

A recent study found pet ownership could help save the NHS up to £2.45 billion a year, simply by reducing the number of times people visit their doctor. The calculation's based on the influence that owning a pet has on mental and physical health, plus lower rates of illnesses and better wellbeing among pet-owners .

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James Yeates, chief vet at the RSPCA, says: "Besides the enjoyment they bring, having furry friends in your home can have a number of health advantages - several studies have shown pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol than non-pet owners, and can be less depressed and less lonely."

Here are six reasons why pets can be good for your health...

1. Unconditional love

However bad your day's been, you'll have someone who depends on you to shower you with affection. The British Medical Journal says the emotional bond between owner and pet can be as intense as that in many human relationships, and may confer similar psychological benefits. "Taking care of and spending time with a pet is a great way to give yourself some headspace to deal with life's setbacks and challenges," explains Eugene Farrell, a mental health expert at AXA PPP healthcare.

2. Routine

The responsibilities that come with owning a pet can give your day purpose, reward and a sense of achievement. Regular routines and rituals can help energy management and support mental space. The Dogs Trust also highlights that a good routine is vital for your dog's wellbeing too.

3. Lower risk of heart disease

Owning a pet can reduce your risk of developing heart disease. It may be that dog owners naturally do more exercise, but pets also play a role in providing social support, encouraging you to stick with a new habit or adopting a healthy behaviour.

Owning a cat has also been associated with a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and stroke, possibly due to the stress-relieving effects of animal companionship.

"Walking your dog - or even borrowing one from a neighbour or animal rescue centre - can do wonders for your wellbeing, as it combines moderate exercise with taking a break from work or household chores and getting some fresh air," says Farrell.

And Yeates points out: "Well cared for and responsibly raised pets can provide companionship as well as motivation to exercise, which is good for both physical and emotional health. Dogs especially are great motivators and personal trainers - never wanting to miss a training session, even when it's raining."

4. Socialising

Pets can act as a social icebreaker between strangers, or as a catalyst for social interaction. Research suggests dog-walkers experience significantly higher social capital (interactions and relationships) than non-dog-walkers, meaning they're less likely to be lonely.

And as new US research has found loneliness may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity, socialising clearly benefits health. Indeed, an analysis of 148 studies representing more than 300,000 participants found greater social connection is associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death.

"Pets provide their owners with companionship in their own right but they can also act as social catalysts by providing opportunities for social interactions," says Yeates. "For example, dogs can help to initiate conversations between strangers. People with pets are less likely to suffer from feelings of loneliness or social isolation."

5. Boost to mental wellbeing

Studies have found that dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. Pets can also reduce stress and anxiety levels, while playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine, which help you feel calm and relaxed.

The Mental Health Foundation notes similar effects have been associated with stroking pets. and Farrell adds: "Caring for pets can help us take time out of our busy schedules, which can help us gain perspective and recharge our batteries."

6. Improving child health

Younger members of the family will also flourish with the presence of a four-legged friend. Yeates explains that children brought up with pets tend to have more stable immune systems, and growing up with pets has also been found to improve children's social skills.

"Pet ownership - done well - also encourages childhood responsibility as the presence of an animal encourages children to develop compassion, understanding and respect for living things," Yeates says.

"When people take on a rescue animal, they'll be benefiting themselves and the new-found friend they take home. And I think adopting a rescue animal forms an extra special bond and is even more rewarding."

Hundreds of RSPCA rescue animals are looking for new loving owners.

  • For more information, visit rspca.org.uk/findapet
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