The Surprising Health Benefits Of Pets

Surprising health benefits of pets.

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?

As far back as 1860, Florence Nightingale noticed “a small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially.” However, having a furry friend at your side can give you more than companionship. If you’re one of the 68 percent of North Americans who live with a pet, you’ll be glad to know that caring for a pet can also reduce your risk of developing certain health conditions and lower your chances of dying from other diseases.

What’s more, people who have pets visit their primary care practitioners less frequently than people without pets.(1) 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.(2)

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.(3) Children who live with both a dog and cat also have greater empathy, self-esteem, cognitive development and participation in social and athletic pursuits.(3-4) Kids with pets also have increased trust, a feeling of community, more self-confidence and feel safer.(5)

In adults and children, when there is an illness or death in the family, pets help family members cope and recover.(3) Pets also provide support and stability in military families when a family member is being relocated.(3)

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.

Men who owned pets had significantly lower systolic but not diastolic blood pressure compared with people who did not own pets, as well as significantly lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels. In women over the age of 40, systolic but not diastolic pressure was significantly lower in pet owners. Triglycerides also tended to be low in these women. Both the pet owners and non-pet owners had similar body mass indexes, so body weight did not account for the lower blood pressure in pet owners.(6)

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.(7)

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.(8)

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.(9) Plus, when cardiac patients named and fed their fish, they experienced a sense of delight.(2) There was even one study where virtual animals seen in video recordings achieved the same effect on cardiovascular stress responses as live animals.(10)

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.(11)

Not all studies have shown that spending time with a feline friend has the same heart healthy benefits as canine companionship. But one study of 2,435 current or previous cat owners found that cat ownership was linked to a lower risk of death from a heart attack as well as a lower risk of death from cardiovascular diseases as a whole. On the other hand, subjects without cats had an increased risk of death from cardiovascular diseases. This was true even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity/race, systolic blood pressure, cigarette smoking, diabetes, cholesterol and body mass index.(12)

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.(13)

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.(14)

People who have dogs are more likely to exercise compared to people who don’t own dogs.(15) One study found that dog owners spent 322 minutes per week engaged in physical activity compared to only 267 minutes in non-owners.(16) 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.(16) 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.(17)

Soothing Anxiety

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder.(18) 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.(3)

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.

Research shows that spending time with pets activates the oxytocin system.(19) What’s more, dog owners experience a spike in their oxytocin levels when their pets gaze at them.(20) Even a single interaction with a pet triggers oxytocin release, but the effect is strongest and lasts longer with close interactions and the more time you spend with your pet.(19)

Anti-Stress Effects

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.(21)

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.(22)

When some kids are exposed to pets early in life—under the age of one—it can help strengthen the development of their immune system and reduce the chances of their developing allergies and asthma.(23) However, one study found this was only true in children whose families did not have a history of eczema. In children from families with a history of eczema, dog exposure at birth was linked to a higher prevalence of asthma and eczema in two-year-old children.(24)

Lowering Your Risk of Cancer

Having a pet may protect you against certain types of cancers. Pet owners have a reduced risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL)—a cancer of the immune cells known as lymphocytes—compared to people who never owned a pet. The longer people owned a cat or dog, the lower their risk of developing NHL.(25)

In another study, having a dog or cat in early childhood was associated with a reduced risk of developing thyroid cancer later in life.(26) Regular contact with pets also is linked to a reduced risk of childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, probably because exposure to pets at an early age stimulates the immune system.(27)

Some studies have found that birds may have the opposite effect—they might raise the risk of developing lung cancer, especially in people under 65 years old.(28-30) But not all studies have confirmed the pet bird/lung cancer link. One group of researchers could not find a link between having a pet parakeet, canary, finch or parrot and an increased risk for lung cancer.(31)

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.(32)

In an earlier study, chronic pain patients experienced a significant improvement in pain, fatigue, stress and mood after a therapy dog visit compared to chronic pain patients who didn’t spend time with a dog. Even the family and friends accompanying patients to appointments and the clinic staff showed reduced emotional distress and improved feelings of well-being after spending time around the dogs.(33)

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.(34) 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.(34)

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.(32, 35-36)

Health Risks from Pets

Overall, having a pet is one of the best things you can do for your health. However, there are some diseases you can catch from your pet, so it’s a good idea to take certain precautions.

Of infectious diseases affecting humans, 61 percent are of animal origin. For example, turtles can carry salmonella. Other animal-transmitted diseases include ringworm (dermatophytosis), toxocariasis and avian psittacosis.(3) The most common source of ringworm in humans is infected cats. In fact, a doctor may not make the connection between a patient’s recurrent ringworm and a pet’s infection.(3)

Toxoplasmosis—which can cause severe and fatal disease in fetuses and people with weak immune systems—can be transmitted by cats, but is just as likely to infect people who consume contaminated food or touch contaminated soil while gardening.(3) Because of toxoplasmosis and ringworm, wear gloves when cleaning your cat’s litter box. And make sure your pets are vaccinated against rabies.

Pets also can transmit intestinal parasites to their human owners.(3) So take your dog and cat to the veterinarian for regular deworming.

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.


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