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How Can Having Pets Improve Your Health? Let Us Count the Ways...

Having a pet can, at times, test your patience, particularly when Fido has chewed up your expensive new boots, or Snowball decides to meow up a storm at 4 a.m. Still, most pet owners will agree wholeheartedly that pets give back much more than they receive in the form of companionship and love.

Owning a pet can reduce your stress, loneliness and blood pressure, while raising your self-esteem.

Indeed, the United States is a pet-loving nation, having more dogs and cats than any other country, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Most pet owners treat their pet like any other member of the family, perhaps even giving them special birthday and holiday presents and foods.

But here is another reason to spoil your pet (as though you needed one): Owning a pet can actually improve the health of its owner.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having a pet can decrease your:

  • Blood pressure

  • Cholesterol levels

  • Triglyceride levels

  • Feelings of loneliness

But that's not all. K.C. Cole, RN, MN, director of UCLA's People-Animal Connection (PAC), says she believes the human-animal bond offers many social, psychological and physiological benefits. PAC volunteers bring dogs to visit about 400 hospital patients each month.

"Among other things, animals contribute to raising self-esteem, significantly lowering anxiety levels, improving attitude toward others and opening lines of communication," Cole said. "With geriatric patients we see a bridge of communication develop with staff and family when a dog visits."

Pets and Your Heart

Perhaps the most notable benefit has to do with heart health. Several studies have found that people who have had a heart attack survive longer with a pet than without.

Another study, by Karen Allen, PhD, a medical researcher at the University of Buffalo, involved 48 stockbrokers with high blood pressure. Those who owned a cat or dog had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations than those without.

"When we told the group that didn't have pets about the findings, many went out and got them," Allen said.

Recovery After Illness

Other studies have found that people with pets tend to have a speedier, easier recovery after illness or surgery. One UK study of 50-60-year-old women recovering from breast cancer, for instance, found:

  • 87 percent reported that their pets filled "at least one important role in their social support."

  • 43 percent reported that their pets fulfilled more than 10 important support functions, such as being cared for, tactile comfort, and still feeling included socially, when they took their dog for a walk.

Kids and Pets

Many of us have fond memories of our first childhood pet, and as it turns out, pets are just as good for kids as they are for the elderly and adults. One five-year study of 600 children aged 3-18 found that children with pets who are slow learners, or whose parents had divorced, had higher levels of self-esteem and better emotional functioning than those with no pet.

Children with autism and other learning and behavioral disabilities also often show immediate improvement when pets are brought into the classroom for animal-assisted therapy.

Further, kids who have a cat or dog in the home during their first years of life are less likely to develop hay fever, asthma and animal-related allergies than those who don't.

Better Overall Health

Research presented at the 10th International Conference on Human Animal Interaction in October 2004 found that pet owners simply experience better health than non pet-owners. The survey of more than 11,000 Australians, Chinese and Germans found that over a five-year period:

  • Pet owners made 15-20 percent fewer annual visits to the doctor than non pet-owners.

  • Those who went to the doctor the least were those who continuously owned a pet.

  • The next healthiest group was people who got a pet during the study.

Though dogs and cats are most popular, any animal can improve your health--especially if you feel an attachment to it.

If you're still not convinced of the benefits of pet ownership, other studies have found these additional health improvements to pet owners:

  • Reduced depression

  • Less stress

  • Improved exercise habits

  • Better quality of life for those with Alzheimer's or orthopedic disorders

A Dog, Cat, Bird ... or Dolphin?

So which types of pets provide the most health benefits? Most commonly, dogs and cats are mentioned in the studies. However, any animal has the potential to brighten your life.

Case in point, a study in a November 2005 British Medical Journal found that people with depression who swam with dolphins for an hour a day for two weeks reported feeling less depressed than those who simply frolicked in the water.

But if you're looking for the most benefit, a pet of your own (after careful consideration) may be the best route to take. Said Mara Baun, D.N.Sc., professor at The University of Texas School of Nursing at Houston, "People derive the greatest health benefits from their own pet, or one to whom they feel some personal attachment.

Recommended Reading

Is Pet Insurance a Good Investment? Find Out Why the Answer Depends on YOU

Winter Dangers to Your Pet: Don't Let Fido and Fifi Freeze!


Eurek Alert November 24, 2005

The Pet Prescription: Is it for You?

CDC: Healthy Pets, Healthy People

Pet Health Council

British Medical Journal November 26, 2005; 331(7527):1231

Pets Can Provide Healthy Benefits

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