If you’re trying to heal or prevent a health problem, turns out one of the most effective therapies is likely sitting at your feet, lying in your lap or snoozing a stone’s throw away. I’m talking about your pets. You probably always knew that petting your dog or cat is soothing. But did you know it could save your life, too?
What’s more, people who have pets visit their primary care practitioners less frequently than people without pets. And researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Hospital discovered that people who own pets report a large reduction in minor health problems and significant improvements in psychological well-being in the first month after acquiring their feline friend or canine companion.
In other words, pets are a bit like a medicine cabinet on paws. Only instead of doling out pills, they provide less tangible benefits for both your emotional and physical health.
Giving Your Emotional Health a Boost
Pets are uplifting for both children and adults. For example, pets help children develop social skills. Children who live with both a dog and cat also have greater empathy, self-esteem, cognitive development and participation in social and athletic pursuits. Kids with pets also have increased trust, a feeling of community, more self-confidence and feel safer.
In adults and children, when there is an illness or death in the family, pets help family members cope and recover. Pets also provide support and stability in military families when a family member is being relocated.
Pets Are Good for the Heart
Many studies have found that owning a pet is linked to a reduction of cardiovascular disease risk factors. One study in Australia of 5,741 subjects found that pet owners had significantly lower systolic blood pressure and triglycerides compared with non-owners.
Another study looked at 240 married couples experiencing psychological and physical stress. Some of the couples had pet dogs or cats while others did not. The study found that couples with pets had significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure levels during the beginning of the study, significantly smaller increases in blood pressure after exposure to a stressful experience and faster recovery after the stressful experience.
Most surprising of all, in a randomized, controlled study, owning a pet was more effective at lowering blood pressure in response to mental stress than an ACE-inhibitor drug.
Most studies showing that pet ownership is good for the heart when you’re under stress used dogs or cats. But some studies found that even owning a goat, fish, chimpanzee or snake could be equally good for the heart after exposure to stress. Plus, when cardiac patients named and fed their fish, they experienced a sense of delight. There was even one study where virtual animals seen in video recordings achieved the same effect on cardiovascular stress responses as live animals.
Owning a Pet Can Save Your Life
In people who have cardiovascular disease, having a pet decreases the risk of dying. In a study of 369 subjects who had a heart attack and later suffered from abnormal heart rhythm, people who owned a pet of any kind were more likely to be alive one year after their heart attack. The strongest association with decreased mortality was among dog owners. And cardiovascular patients who didn’t own a dog were about four times more likely to die compared to dog owners.
Dogs Force You to Exercise
In addition to reducing stress, one of the reasons why dogs are heart-healthy is because they motivate their owners to take frequent walks. Walking a dog can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy body weight. Dog owners who walk their dogs are more likely to maintain weight loss over a year
Researchers estimate that if adults participated in 60 minutes of physical activity daily, it would eliminate 33 percent of all coronary heart disease-related deaths, 25 percent of stroke-related deaths, 20 percent of deaths related to type 2 diabetes and 20 percent of hypertension-related deaths.
People who have dogs are more likely to exercise compared to people who don’t own dogs. One study found that dog owners spent 322 minutes per week engaged in physical activity compared to only 267 minutes in non-owners. Dog owners were 57 percent more likely to participate in the recommended level of physical activity compared to people who didn’t own a dog. In addition, children who have dogs spend more time participating in physical activity and take more steps per day compared to kids who don’t have a canine companion.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder. Interacting with pets can do a world of good for people who suffer from anxiety. Spending time with pets switches the focus of anxious people away from themselves, making them less anxious and more motivated to interact with other people.
The reason why pets calm anxiety may have to do with the hormone oxytocin, which helps you bond emotionally with your significant other. It also decreases stress, blood pressure, anxiety and depression and increases social interaction, self-confidence, memory and learning.
Another way that pets reduce anxiety is by influencing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In one study of 48 subjects, researchers investigated how stress affected cortisol levels and heart rate by assigning the subjects a human friend, a dog or a control. The researchers then exposed the subjects to stressful situations. The people who were paired with a pooch during the stressful experiences had lower cortisol levels and heart rate compared to the people who were paired with a human friend or a control.
A Boost to Your Immunity
Another possible benefit of having a pet is a stronger immune system. There’s some evidence that petting a dog can increase levels of secretory immunoglobulin A, which is secreted by mucous membranes of the body and protects against the entry of viruses, bacteria and other foreign contaminants.
Pets Provide Pain Relief
Because of all the research pouring in about the benefits of owning pets, hospitals and outpatient clinics are using animals more often to help people who have many different health concerns.
In one study, researchers divided fibromyalgia patients in an outpatient clinic into a group that spent time with a therapy dog while waiting for their appointment and another group that served as a control that didn’t spend time with a dog. Fibromyalgia patients who spent time with the dog experienced significant pain relief and improvements in mood and other measures of distress. In the patients who spent time with a canine companion, 34 percent experienced significant pain relief, while only four percent of the controls experienced relief.
Animal-Assisted Therapy in Dementia and Other Diseases
In a handful of studies, dementia patients who spent time with a dog experienced reduced aggression and agitation and were more likely to have improved social behavior. And in one small study, the presence of aquariums in the dining rooms of dementia care units stimulated the appetites of residents and caused them to gain weight.
Animal-assisted therapy can benefit people with other diseases too. Dog therapy can help patients recovering from surgery as well as people with pervasive developmental disorders, cerebral palsy, speech disorders, cardiovascular disease, depression, schizophrenia, cancer and spinal cord injuries, as well as people living in rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes.
Your Health’s Best Friend
Having a pet—especially a dog or a cat—can help you stay healthy. Pets can boost your mood, reduce your risk of heart disease, help you lose weight and keep it off and even reduce your risk of certain types of cancer.
In the case of heart disease, dogs and cats can even save your life, suggesting that one of the best medicines for any disease is to spend time with the furriest members of your family.
References: on Request