Do pets help with anxiety? Can a dog help with mental health? While the answers to these questions are not totally clear, there’s no denying that most pet owners will tell you there are some amazing health benefits to having a pet.

Some people might find a house filled with pets too much. But Krista Sylvester, the owner of three dogs and two cats, finds comfort in being surrounded by a crew of fur-babies which she claims make her life better in many ways.

They really cheer you up and know when you’re upset or have had a bad day,” the Calgarian says. “I think they just bring you back to the moment. When the dog’s there and they just want attention and loving, it just makes you forget about everything. They don’t care what you did that day, they just want to be around you.”

Sylvester is onto something that’s been the subject of much scientific probing to determine what the physical and mental benefits to that human-animal bond are.

“Pets, especially dogs and cats, can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness and even improve your cardiovascular health,” according to Helpguide. “Caring for an animal can help children grow up more secure and active. Pets also provide valuable companionship for older adults.”

And you don’t need the companionship of a dog or cat to reap the rewards. A rabbit or a relaxing tank full of fish can be good, too.

Full disclosure: Harold Herzog, is a pet lover, but he’s also a psychologist who’s studied the human-animal connection for years.

So, he gets it on a personal level. But on an academic one, he’s seen studies that highlight the many health benefits animals can bring to people who welcome them into their homes.

"Higher survival rates, fewer heart attacks, less loneliness, better blood pressure, better psychological well-being, lower rates of depression and stress levels, fewer doctor visits, increased self-esteem, better sleep and more physical activity," are a few of the recorded benefits Herzog cites.

But how does a pet do the mental health and body good?

While not all the studies spell it out perfectly and there’s a lot of debate on the conclusions made by researchers — they do go a long way to help confirm what many pet owners already think they know about the health benefits which come with pet ownership.

That’s especially the case with dogs.

Dog ownership was associated with a 24 per cent reduction in dying from any cause, according to an analysis of nearly four million people in countries which included Canada and Australia.

Want another reason to be leashed up with a canine, metaphorically speaking, of course? The same study showed dog owners with a history of heart attack or stroke were 31 per cent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

It’s rarely argued by anyone that regular exercise is good for your health. And with that in mind, it’s good news for dog owners given one study shows those who walk their dogs get up to 30 minutes more physical activity a day than non-walkers.

So, whether you want to believe dogs help with anxiety or get us moving which is good for our health — there’s, no doubt, a dog connection comes with perks.

Another benefit of having a pet is they keep you busy.

Sylvester and her wife own a 15-year-old small mixed-breed dog (which she fell in love with when accompanying a friend to the pet store to buy fish food,) a five-year-old golden retriever and a one-eyed, middle-aged rescue named, Presley.

With all those dogs, and two cats, there’s no way she can lean into any lazy intentions.

“They keep you accountable,” she explains. “You need to get up and feed them and take them for a walk. It gets you out of the house. Sometimes, you might not be in the mood, but you do what’s best for the dogs. It gets you out in the sunshine and fresh air. You can’t lay in bed all day.”

While researchers continue to drill down to the benefits of pets, others are already thinking of how far the fabulous connection might go as it evolves.

Megan Mueller, co-director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, says that could include one day seeing pets prescribed to help with everything from a troubled teen to a heart patient.

Doesn’t seem that far of a stretch considering therapy animals, be they dogs, horses or pigs, are already a thing people rely on to assist with physical disabilities and emotional and/or mental health issues.

And most people with pets (whether they have a parrot, a pooch, a hamster, or kitty cat) don’t need any proof to see that their creature companion is a positive addition to their life. According to Helpguide:

  • Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without
  • People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without One study found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months
  • Playing with pets can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine
  • Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets
  • Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without
  • Pet owners over age 65 make 30 per cent fewer visits to doctors than those without

February 20th is Love Your Pet Day