We all know that our pets make us feel good when we have them around but did you know that owning a pet can also improve your health and happiness? It only takes a few minutes of interaction with our pets to help us feel less anxious and less stressed. Our bodies actually go through physical changes in that time that make a difference in our mood; the level of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, is lowered, and the production of serotonin, a chemical associated with well-being, is increased.
People who own dogs tend to be more physically active and less obese than people who don’t. Taking your dog for a 30 minute walk twice a day will keep you moving and ensure that you meet the minimum recommendations for healthy physical activity.
A Healthy Mind
One key to a healthy mind is staying engaged with others. Pet owners have a tendency to want to talk with other pet owners and, dog owners in particular, often like to stop for a chat in the park with other owners. Pets can help us to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation and help keep depression at bay. Whether it’s getting out to walk the dog, chatting to other pet owners or just talking to your pet in your own home home, even the smallest pets make great companions and can help people feel more engaged with the world.
Some mental health therapists even use dogs in therapy because a dog in the office can help some people relax.
Stress and High Blood Pressure
A few minutes alone with a pet might do more to help people’s stress than talking about their troubles with their best friend or spouse. When researchers examined the effects of the presence of friends, spouses and pets on the level of stress associated with certain relatively unpleasant tasks; they found that compared with human support, the presence of pets was associated with lower perceived and actual responses to stress. Having a pet also has the potential to lower blood pressure, especially in hypertensive or high-risk patients. A three-year study involving over 5000 participants showed that pet owners had lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than non-pet owners, even after smoking and weight were taken into consideration.
Heart Health and Strokes
The long-term benefits of owning a cat include protection for your heart! A 20 year study showed that people who had never owned a cat were 40% more likely to die of a heart attack than those who had. Another study showed that dog owners had a significantly better survival rate one year after a heart attack. Overall, pet owners have a lower risk of dying from any cardiac disease, including heart failure. Cat owners also have a lower stroke risk. Research by the University of Minnesota concluded that owning a cat can significantly lower your risk of suffering a stroke. They interviewed more than 4,000 patients and found the non-cat owners were 30 to 40 per cent more likely to have suffered a stroke than owners of dogs and other pets.
It could be partly due to the lower blood pressure and heart rates associated with owning a pet, but studies have shown that pet ownership can make you more able to deal with pain. Apparently stroking a dog can reduce the amount of painkillers needed by a patient recovering from a joint replacement operation. Other research has found that women coped better with the pain and fear of breast cancer if they owned a cat or a dog (the benefits were greater than if they had the support of a loving husband!).
People who own a dog have also been shown to recover more quickly after surgery.
Interacting with your pet can help you feel better when you are unwell. Dog owners generally get less coughs and colds; saliva tests on children, found that those in homes with dogs had higher concentrations of an antibody called Immunoglobulin A, which helps fight off coughs and colds, and took less time off school for sickness.
Pet ownership has been shown to cut the risk of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, by 30 per cent, according to a study by the University of California. The longer you’ve lived with a cat or dog, the greater protection you have.
Visits from therapy dogs help patients recovering from devastating illness or an event such as a stroke. Interacting with a pet can help a patient rebuild strength while recovering from a stroke or other illness and it also creates a feeling of calm; and studies have also shown that patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia have fewer anxious outbursts if there is an animal present in the home.
Pet owners were also found to use medical services considerably less frequently than non-pet owners.
Allergies and Asthma
Researchers have found that when children grow up in a home with a dog or cat they are less likely to develop allergies. In addition, higher levels of certain immune system chemicals show a stronger immune system, which will help keep them healthy as they get older. Pet allergies are one of the most common triggers of asthma, but researchers have studied the effects of having cats in the homes of infants at risk for asthma. What they found was that those children were significantly less likely to develop asthma as they got older. The exception was that children whose mothers have a cat allergy are three times more likely to develop asthma after early exposure to cats.
Children and Pets
Children can definitely benefit from working with and keeping a pet because taking charge of the jobs on a pet care schedule helps a child learn to plan and be responsible. Pets need to play, and playing with a pet is an great way to release excess energy, which means an easier time falling asleep at night. A pet will also give a child unconditional love and someone to talk to. There has also been extensive research into how pets can help children with learning difficulties, ADHD, Asperger syndrome and Autism. (see our article on Children and Dog Safety) Dr June McNicholas, a health psychologist, presented findings of a study which examined 256 children (aged 5 to 11 years) in three schools in England and Scotland. The key findings were:
- Absenteeism through illness was significantly less among pet-owning children
- Children in reception and Year 1 classes had 18 per cent and 13 per cent better attendance respectively than non-pet owning children
- Pet-owning children attended school for an additional three weeks extra school compared to non-pet owning children (aged 5 to 7 years).
Remember that while pets can make great companions for children, it must always be under the supervision of a responsible adult. If you are looking for a pet to help a child with a specific condition, please make sure that you consult the relevant people and doctors before rushing out and getting a pet; dog’s especially may need very special training to enable them to cope in these situations.
Predictors of Ill Health
Dogs have demonstrated their abilities over many years to alert their owners to impending illness. There are dogs that can alert their diabetic owners to when they are hypoglycaemic and dogs that can detect when their epileptic owners are about to have a seizure. There is lots of evidence of animals alerting their owners to illnesses such as cancer by repeated sniffing or pawing at the area and dogs are being specially trained to use their sensitive nose to sniff out cancer in urine samples.
Protectors and Heroes
Dogs can be trained not only to protect people and help catch criminals, but also to search for, people explosives, drugs, guns, money and tobacco. Did you know that pets can be heroes too? There are many of stories available on the internet about courageous pets saving their owners by alerting them to dangers such as fires, live wires or burglars.
Pets Are Good For Us
It is easy to see why we own an estimated 8.5 million dogs and 7.5 million cats in the UK, with approximately 24% of households owning at least one dog and 17% of households owning at least one cat. There are also estimated to be approximately 800,000 pet rabbits, 700,000 pet guinea pigs, 600,000 pet reptiles , 400,000 pet rodents and 600,000 pet birds.
Now, I am in no way suggesting that people rush out and get themselves a new pet, because pet ownership is a huge responsibility and pets are certainly not cheap to feed and look after; but it does seem that if you are a pet owner it is great news for your health, if not always for your wealth … and as long as your pet doesn’t become ill, or get injured, or run off because we all know how stressful that can be!