Animal lovers know that pets can fill the darkest corners of the soul, but it's not just because they get you all the Instagram likes: Pets may do much, much more.
Enter emotional support animals (ESA), or companion animals, pets you keep close by for the sake of your health. Any old pet can qualify – no training required. All you need is a prescription from a mental healthcare provider, which can entitle your pet, by law, to live with you in certain housing units and public spaces that typically outlaw animals – although a certain peacock and hamster recently met some resistance.
Here's how keeping an ESA by your side can improve (almost) all the things, according to research dating back to the '80s, which is still evolving:
1. It can alleviate anxiety. If you're constantly worrying about what's to come, petting an animal could help you cope: When Tel Aviv University researchers told 58 adults they may be asked to hold a tarantula – BAHH!– then gave them each a rabbit, turtle, toy rabbit, or toy turtle to pet in the meantime, the critters, not the toys, lowered participants' self-reported anxiety levels in the 2010 study. Because petting a toy didn't reduce anxiety, researchers credit the animals themselves, although more research is needed.
2. It may zap stress. Spending as few as five minutes with an animal can reduce circulating levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to a 2005 study in which researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University assessed 20 participants' blood and saliva before and after playing with a visiting dog for as few as five minutes. Benefits peaked 45 minutes after the interaction – but just imagine how zen you'd feel if you had your pet with you always.
FWIW, pets might be even more effective than humans when it comes to stress relief: When kids were given a dog, toy, or friendly human to help them cope in a socially stressful situation, their cortisol levels remained lower when an animal was present, according to a 2015 study published in the peer-reviewed journal AnthrozoÃ¶s.
3. It may lift your mood. If the animal in your life lifts your spirits, you're not alone: When researchers from Northern Arizona University looked at five existing studies on the topic, they found some solid proof that animal therapy helps alleviate depressive symptoms, according to their 2007 meta-analysis.
Although more research is needed, you may not need a leash to cash in on this particular benefit: Companion birds improved depressive symptoms and quality of life among elderly community members. After three months, they fared much better than those given plants or zilch, according to a 2006 study conducted by Italian researchers.
4. It can turn you into you a human magnet. Because they make their owners more appealing to strangers, pets can promote social interactions: When a female experimenter held either a potted plant, stuffed bear, or one of three dogs for a 2004 study, she received more smiles and verbal responses from the 1,800 strangers who passed by when she was accompanied by the dogs. People were generally more receptive to the friendlier dogs involved – a full-grown Labrador and puppy – than the third dog, which was a Rottweiler. Women walking alone were most responsive to the animals, overall.
5. It can activate the same hormones that surge when you're in love. When dog owners stroked, petted, and talked to their dogs for three minutes in a Swedish study published in 2015, researchers found the humans' circulating levels of oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone" since it can facilitate bonding and feelings of well-being, peaked as soon as one minute after cuddling with their pets.
6. It may help your heart. For years, researchers have known that animal love is like a drug for humans with high blood pressure: Regardless of how much (or how little) you swoon around animals, petting one can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, according to a study published in Journal of Behavioral Medicine in the late '80s.
7. It may boost your immune system. Pets don't just make you feel better emotionally – they may actually stoke your immune system to fight off pathogens, according to a 2004 Wilkes University study in which students had significantly higher levels of antibodies in their saliva after petting a live dog compared to those tested before and after petting a stuffed animal or doing nothing.
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