Your favorite animal can make you healthy and help you stay that way. You may be surprised at just how many ways a pet can improve your health. In fact, for nearly 25 years, research has shown that living with pets provides certain health benefits. Pets help lower blood pressure, lessen anxiety and boost our immunity. They can even reduce the risk of allergies and asthma!
A growing number of studies have suggested that kids growing up in a home with “furred animals,” whether it’s a pet cat or dog, or on a farm and exposed to large animals, will have less risk of allergies and asthma, despite the popular belief that believes otherwise.
In recent studies, the blood of babies immediately after birth and one year later was analyzed for evidence of an allergic reaction, immunity changes, and for reactions to bacteria in the environment. Results proved that if a dog lived in the home, infants were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies, a whopping 19% vs. 33%. They also were less likely to have eczema, a common allergy skin condition that causes red patches and itching. In addition, they had higher levels of some immune system chemicals — a sign of stronger immune system activation.
There is one exception to note, however. Children whose mothers have a cat allergy are three times more likely to develop asthma after early exposure to cats.
Well, let’s just say, pets can earn owners more interaction and less isolation. Dogs are great for making social and even love connections. Forget Internet matchmaking! A dog being walked in the streets or at the dog park is a natural conversation starter. This especially helps ease people out of social isolation or shyness.
Studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s have fewer anxious outbursts if there is an animal in the home. In addition, their caregivers also feel less burdened when there is a pet, particularly if it is a cat, which generally requires less care than a dog.
People who own dogs tend to be more physically active and less obese than people who do not. Taking a dog for daily 30-minute walks will keep people moving and better ensure that they meet the minimum recommendations for healthy physical activity. Two 15-minute walks, one in the morning and one in the evening, will do the same thing. And after that, just playing fetch in the back yard with a dog will earn healthful dividends.
Walking a dog or just caring for a pet — for elderly people who are able — can provide exercise and companionship, as well. One insurance company, Midland Life Insurance Company of Columbus, Ohio, asks clients over age 75 if they have a pet as part of their medical screening — which often helps tip the scales in their favor.
In one study, stockbrokers with high blood pressure who adopted a cat or dog had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations than did people without pets.
People in stress mode get into a “state of dis-ease,” in which harmful chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine can negatively affect the immune system. Studies show a link between these chemicals and plaque buildup in arteries, the red flag for heart disease.
Like any enjoyable activity, playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine — nerve transmitters that are known to have pleasurable and calming properties. Many people take drugs like heroin and cocaine to raise serotonin and dopamine, but the healthy way to do it is to pet your dog, or hug your spouse, watch sunsets, or get around something beautiful in nature.
Good for the Heart
Heart attack patients who have pets survive longer than those without, according to several studies. Male pet owners have less sign of heart disease — lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels — than non-owners, researchers say. Research has also shown the long-term benefits of owning a cat include protection for the heart. Over the 20 years of one study, people who 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.
Amazing Stress Relief
Perhaps most astonishing of all is pets’ remarkable ability to ease feelings of stress. Chronic stress can increase your risk of a number of health problems, ranging from heart disease to cancer, and it’s through this mechanism that pets may offer such wide-ranging benefits to your health.
It only takes 15 to 30 minutes with a dog or cat or watching fish swim to feel less anxious and less stressed. Your body actually goes through physical changes in that length of time that makes a difference in your 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. Reducing stress saves your body wear and tear.
Pet owners with AIDS are far less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. In fact, the benefit is especially pronounced when people are strongly attached to their pets.
According to the Delta Society, “AAT is a goal-directed intervention directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession. AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.”
In other words, certified therapy animals working with specialized handlers interact with adults and children, providing a wide range of emotional and physical benefits.
Animal-assisted therapy has also been found to help reduce loneliness in residents of long-term care facilities and, beyond the emotional benefits, the Delta Society points out that visits with a therapy dog have been found to help heart and lung function by lowering pressures, diminishing release of harmful hormones and decreasing anxiety in people hospitalized with heart failure.
Also, research recently presented at the First Human Animal Interaction Conference in Kansas City, Missouri found that people who used AAT while recovering from total joint-replacement surgery required 50 percent less pain medication.
Sensory issues are common among children with autism. Sensory integration activities are designed to help them adjust, for instance, to the way something feels against their skin. Or it may be how they react to certain smells or sounds. Dogs and horses have both sometimes been incorporated into these activities. The children typically find it calming to work with animals. And animals easily hold the attention of children with autism.
Kids with ADHD can benefit from working with and keeping a pet. Taking charge of the tasks 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 excellent way to release excess energy. That means an easier time falling asleep at bed time. And because the bond between a pet and a child is unconditional love, pets help children with ADHD learn about self-esteem.
Soothing Heat for Chronic Pain
A Mexican hairless dog called a Xolo is known for generating intense body heat. An organization called Paws for Comfort trains Xolos to be service dogs for people with fibromyalgia and other forms of chronic pain that respond to heat. People get relief just by placing their hurting limbs against the dog’s body or lying up next to it. Some dogs have even been trained to ride around wrapped around the neck of a person with chronic neck pain.
•Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than non-owners
• Displaying tanks of brightly colored fish improves eating habits and curtails disruptive behavior in people with Alzheimer’s disease
• Pet owners have better psychological well-being overall, and feel less afraid of being a victim to a crime in their home
• Children exposed to pets during their first year of life have a lower risk of developing asthma and allergies
• Pet ownership may decrease heart attack mortality by 3 percent
• Owning a pet (particularly a dog) helps children adjust better to serious illness or death of a parent, as well as enhances self-esteem, cognitive development and nurturing behavior