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Hello Idaho: How owning a pet can benefit your mental health

While it may not be with currency, pets actually have a way of repaying their owners: owning a pet can have significant benefits on your mental health.

BOISE, Idaho — American pet owners spent more than $100 billion on their furry companions in 2020, purchasing everything from veterinary care to a new pack of tennis balls, according to the American Pet Products Association.

Sales have never exceeded that mark until last year, as many people adopted "pandemic pets" or simply spent more time at home with their animals.

While it may not be with currency, pets actually have a way of repaying their owners: owning a pet can have significant benefits on your mental health.

Optum Idaho Field Care Coordinator Darren Bushee and his rescue dog, Chloe, are not like family; they are family.

"She is very engaging, very loving, and I would be hard-pressed to find anyone who couldn't benefit from a pet like Chloe," Bushee said. "Whenever you're having a terrible day, you can always be sure of one thing, and that's your pet is still going to love you."  

Pets can improve the mental health of people of all ages, according to Bushee. For example, they can improve a child's self-esteem by offering unconditional acceptance.

"Also, by taking care of a pet a child can learn some valuable life lessons about taking care of others," he said. "Pets teach kids more important lessons about life and death, as well." 

On the other side of the spectrum, senior citizens can benefit from a furry companion as well.

"Animals give seniors another life to care for and new responsibilities, which can keep them from being isolated themselves," Bushee said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled more people to stay home, many people have adopted "pandemic pets" over the last year. Animals can help compensate for the lack of human contact while in lockdown or living alone, according to Bushee.

"Some studies show that people 65 and older who own a pet go to the doctor 30% fewer times than people who don't," he said. 

While owning a pet has numerous mental health benefits, it may not be for everyone. It is a long commitment and can be costly, financially and physically.

"People with weak immune systems need to take precautions when handling or choosing a pet. Talk to your vet before you do that," Bushee said. "People who have prolonged allergies should be certain that they have no pet allergies."

For Bushee, spending his days with Chloe is what got him through the pandemic.

"No matter what was going on outside in the world and no matter how bleak it became, she would always greet me with a smile and unconditionally," he said.

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