The healing power of pets

Five ways our furry friends – plus finned and feathered ones, too – can improve our wellbeing.

Words: Beth Anderson

Reducing stress, aiding social development, helping people with mental health disorders… animals can enhance the health of humans in many ways.

1. Pet owners are less likely to have a heart attack

According to research undertaken by the American Heart Association, pet ownership is one of the factors associated with a reduction in the risk of heart disease1. And another study has found that, over a 20-year period, people who had never owned a pet cat were 40 percent more likely to die of a heart attack than those who had a feline companion2

2. Pets have a calming influence

A US study examining the effects of pet ownership on hypertensive patients before and during ACE inhibitor therapy (medication for blood pressure) showed that, while the medication lowered resting blood pressure, responses to mental stress were significantly lower among the pet-owning participants compared with those who had no pets3.

And for people with restricted mobility, studies have shown that gazing at aquarium fish reduces stress and subsequently lowers blood pressure – and can have beneficial effects for Alzheimer’s patients4.

3. Pets help with illness recovery

Therapy pets are used in hospitals and rehabilitation centres around the world to hasten recovery for a variety of illnesses. “We’ve had a lot of success taking dogs and cats into the trauma areas of cancer patients – kids in particular,” says Maryann Dalton, Operations Manager at the Pet Industry Association of Australia (PIAA). “It lifts their spirits, and I think the mental stimulation takes away from the fact that they’re ill.”

4. Dogs can scent illness 

New studies show that dogs are able to smell certain diseases and that, with a little training, can identify illness5.

For the past decade, scientists have used dogs to detect the likes of melanoma, lung and breast cancer. While none of the tests has proved 100 percent accurate, the results have been promising. In fact, in one case, sniffer dogs accurately identified kidney and bladder cancer in what was previously thought to be a non-cancerous sample5.

5. Pets can help boost your mood

“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence about people who are having a hard time feeling better with their pet around,” says Dr Tim Adams, Trustee of The Australian Anthrozoology Research Foundation (AARF). “People talk about their pet getting them through a tough time, such as a family breakdown or the loss of a spouse.

Children and animals

There are many psychological and physical benefits for children associated with pet ownership. Various studies have found that growing up with animals can reduce the risk of developing asthma or allergies later in life6; that teenagers with pets are likely to be more positive and less lonely7; and that younger children who have a dog, cat, fish or bird are less likely to miss days of school7.

“There’s also some evidence that suggests pet ownership has some protective effects against children becoming overweight or obese,” says Dr Tim Adams. “We think that’s got a lot to do with play, because children spontaneously play with their dog.”


  1. American Heart Association, ‘Pets may help reduce your risk of heart disease’, 9 May 2013,
  2. Qureshi, AI, Zeeshan MM, Vazquez, G, Fareed, M, Suri, K, ‘Cat ownership and the Risk of Fatal Cardiovascular Diseases. Results from the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Study Mortality Follow-up Study’, Journal of Vascular and Interventional Neurology, vol. 2, no.1, 2009
  3.  Allen, K, Shykoff, BE, & Izzo, Jr.JL, ‘Pet ownership, but not ACE inhibitor therapy, blunts home blood pressure responses to mental stress’, Hypertension, vol. 38, 2001
  4. Pets are Wonderful Support (PAWS), ‘The Health Benefits of Companion Animals’, 2007, Psychology Today, ‘Dr. Dog: Medicine’s Best Friend’, 29 April 2012, TIME, ‘Study: Living With Pets May Protect Infants From Allergies’, 13 June 2011, The Age, ‘Raining cats, dogs, birds and goldfish’, 25 September 2013,

Information provided in this article is not medical advice and you should consult with your healthcare practitioner. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.