15 Ways That Pets Make Us Healthier

15 Ways That Pets Make Us Healthier

How Pets Make Us Healthier

For many people, interacting with a companion animal is the ultimate stress-buster–a better, healthier choice than a vodka martini as the antidote to a stress-filled day. In fact, in one study, when people were presented with stressful tasks in four different situations — alone, with their spouse, with their pet, or with both their spouse and their pet — they experienced the lowest stress response and the quickest recovery in the situation where they were only with their pet.[1]

While stronger companion animal-people bonds usually lead to the greatest stress relief, even brief encounters can create improvements. In one study, patients who spent a short amount of time with a dog before an upcoming medical treatment such as an operation experienced a 37 percent reduction in their anxiety levels, perhaps because the animal’s presence helped distract them from their concerns.[2]

Multiple studies indicate that companion animals are powerful forms of stress relief, lowering not only blood pressure but also harmful stress hormones like cortisol—a hormone linked to depression and anxiety; and elevating beneficial hormones like oxytocin, linked to joy and relaxation[3]. In other studies, some people experienced increased output of dopamines and endorphins, after just five minutes with an animal.[4]

While it’s usually the four-legged furry creatures that get all the attention, other companion animals can help, too. Simply watching a fish tank versus a bare wall for 30 minutes lowers blood pressure[5]significantly. Simply listening to and passively observing an aquarium can be an even more powerful relaxant than several proven meditative[6]techniques.

Although a companion animal can be a powerful form of stress relief for many people, they are a life-long commitment and responsibility; and certain individuals do best to stick with the inanimate, stuffed variety. For these people, taking on the added responsibilities of an animal companion may prove too much for them to handle. Recovery Communities like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) offer the following steps that people should take before beginning a serious romantic relationship while they are in recovery. First: they should buy a plant and take care of this. If the plant is still flourishing after one year–then they should take responsibility for a companion animal. If after two years the plant and the companion animal are doing well, only then should people feel ready for a romantic relationship.

The point here: Be realistic. If you work 70-80 hour weeks and have a heavy travel-schedule, an animal companion may not be right for you. It’s important to assess your personal situation before rushing off to the nearest no-kill animal shelter because, unfortunately, furry creatures and stress relief don’t always correlate[7].

In the United States, 63 percent of households harbor at least one companion animal. That works out to approximately 71.1 million homes and an astonishing 382.2 million animals. They’re not cheap, either: According to the American Pet Products Association, pet owners will spend upward of $45.4 billion on pet charges each year[8].

Yet, even with the cost, time and responsibility involved, ask any companion animal guardian and they can tell you all the ways their dog or cat has improved their emotional well-being and overall health for the better. Does science back-up these claims?

Scientific study of the human-animal bond is still in its infancy. Several small or anecdotal studies have uncovered intriguing connections between human health and animal interactions. However, more rigorous follow-up studies have often shown mixed results. The general belief is that there are health benefits to owning pets, both in terms of psychological growth and development, as well as physical health benefits, but there have been relatively few well-controlled studies.

Top 15 List: Companion Animals
Here are 15 ways that companion animals enhance our lives:
1. Chronic Health Conditions
Research shows that individuals suffering from chronic health conditions, such as AIDS/HIV, diabetes, high blood pressure, and/or cancer who had companion animal has wellness benefits — less likely to suffer from depression than those without.

Studies also show that individuals with high blood pressure who adopted a cat or dog saw lower blood pressure in subsequent stressful situations.

Studies indicate that playing with companion animal helps to increase levels of serotonin and dopamine, which improve mood, and can help to reduce levels of harmful chemicals that are increased when stressed, like cortisol and norepinephrine, which can increase chances for illness.

2. Pets & Depression Relief

According to Allen Wagner LMFT, a Los Angeles and Calabasas based Marriage and Family Therapist, “I did my training in geriatric facility that specialized Axis 2 disorders such as major depression, bipolar, histrionic, schizophrenia, and borderline personality.  During this time I saw first hand how bringing a dog twice a week, changed the energy of the facility, and the impact this had in bringing pure joy to the clients we served.” 

In his current practice, Wagner sees first-hand how pets play a significant role in providing daily hope and a reduction in depressive symptoms. 

“When people are depressed, they often feel unseen, both emotionally and physically,” explained Wagner. “This leads us to a sense of feeling alone, which can snowball into isolation, and than the self fulfilling prophecy occurs, where we really are alone.   Pets can shift this in a very real way.  They are a living soul that loves you, and respects you, and defers to you.  They are excited to see you, in a way that most depressed people don’t view the environment or people typically do.  In the case of dogs, they need to go outside, and will force a depressed person to get dressed and go out.  Getting out of the home is the most difficult thing in major depression, but responsibility and obligation will make this happen, and typically the person will feel better for having gone for that walk.  Dogs also make people more approachable, and people out with a dog are more likely to engage with another person, which can take us anywhere if we are open to it.  People who have pets are also far less likely to try take their own life, understanding that the pet is their dependent and relies on them.” 

3. Animal Assistance for People With Seizure Disorders
Living with a seizure disorder can be physically challenging and can take an emotional toll on many of the 2.3 million American adults currently living with epilepsy, as well as the 467,711 children and teens living with epilepsy and seizure disorders. This can lead to feelings of depression, isolation and loneliness for the person living with the condition, as well as stress, worry and anxiety for family members and caregivers. Research has proven that the companionship of trained assistance animals helps individuals with seizure disorders feel more relaxed, positive and better able to manage their condition.

To raise awareness of this important tool to help families coping with seizure disorders, pharmaceutical firm Eisai has partnered with celebrity animal behaviorist and star of the Emmy-nominated CBS television series “Lucky Dog,” Brandon McMillan, as well as the Epilepsy Foundation and 4 Paws for Ability (4 Paws), a non-profit organization focused on the training and placement of service dogs for children with a variety of conditions, including epilepsy.

“While most people are aware of guide dogs for the blind or deaf, many may not know about the invaluable impact that assistance dogs can have for those households coping with a seizure disorder,” said McMillan. “In my decades of experience as an animal trainer, I’ve seen firsthand the power that animals have to enhance people’s lives and this is even more true for those coping with a serious illness.”

Service dogs, which include seizure assistance dogs for people with epilepsy and seizure disorders, are rigorously trained to perform tasks for people with various needs. Seizure assistance dogs are typically trained for 12 to 18 months to help with physical challenges and to respond to a seizure in someone who has epilepsy.

“Living with a seizure disorder can be physically challenging and emotionally isolating for both the person living with the condition and their caregivers,” said Nathan Fountain, M.D., Professor of Neurology and Director of the F.E. Dreifuss Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at the University of Virginia School of Medicine.

“Assistance dogs provide functional assistance to help people gain back independence and are trained to bark or alert when a seizure occurs. This can be extremely helpful if seizures occur frequently or during the night when caregivers are asleep,” Dr. Fountain said.

In cases where a highly-trained seizure assistance dog is not needed, research has shown that interaction with therapy dogs or even household pets can increase socialization and provide emotional support. People with seizure disorders or their family members can learn more about how to maximize the benefits of animal assistance in their lives atwww.MagnoliaPawsForCompassion.com

4. Heart-Health
Individuals who suffered from heart attacks, and had a companion animal–lived longer than those without a furry companion. Men with companion animal have a lower risk of heart disease and people with cats over their lifetime actually have a 40% lower risk of dying of a heart attack. One NIH-funded study looked at 421 adults who’d suffered heart attacks. A year later, the scientists found, dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack[9]. Companion animal also have been shown to help decrease hypertension, cholesterol and blood pressure.

5. The Elderly
Chris Dobson, a former veterinarian tech who now owns a SYNERGY HomeCare franchise in Salt Lake City, Utah, which provides non-medical in-home care to seniors, advocates for the benefits of an elderly person having a pet.

According to Dobson, “the two most important benefits a pet can bring a senior are companionship and safety and protection,” and recommends a dog as being the best pet for a senior.

Adopting a companion animal or spending time with an animal companion offers the elderly a feeling of belonging and love, and decreases feelings of isolation and loneliness. For instance, a study[10]of nursing home residents in St. Louis reported that they felt less lonely with some quiet time with a dog alone than a visit with both a dog and other residents.

Animal companions also provide the opportunity for exercise, which can positively benefit elderly individuals with illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis; and aids in the prevention of osteoporosis. In addition, doctors encourage their patients with arthritis to watch their cats, and stretch each time their cat does — this helps them to remember to stretch and helps to relieve pain. Research also suggests that Alzheimer’s patients have less anxiety outbursts when they had companion animals.

6. Kids & Companion Animals
Research suggests that companion animals may hold special benefits during childhood. When children are asked who they talk to when they get upset, a lot of times their first answer is their dog or cat. This indicates the importance of companion animals as a source of comfort and developing empathy. In fact, therapists and researchers have reported that children with autism & ADHD are sometimes better able to interact with companion animals, and this may help in their interactions with people[11].

7. Obesity-Reduction
People who adopt dogs tend to be more physically active and physically fit than non-dog owners. A study looking at 2,000 adults found that those who walked their dogs had less rates of obesity and were more physically active than those without dogs[12]. Another NIH study looking at 2,500 adults aged 71-82 showed that adults who regularly walked their dogs had more mobility inside the house without a companion animal[13].

8. Cats Can Prevent Strokes
Cats can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes by more than a third, researchers have found. Scientists said that having a cat helped to relieve stress and anxiety, which is known to help protect against heart disease by lowering blood pressure and reducing heart rate. The study looked at 4,435 adults aged between 30 and 75, about half of whom adopted a cat[14]. On balance, the lead researcher speculated that “the type of person who owned a cat was usually already fairly stress-free and at low risk of heart disease.”

9. Therapy Animals Help in Memory & Rehab Clinical Settings

Malia Fischer is an Activity Coordinator at the Sarah Chudnow Community in Mequon, WI. The Sarah Chudnow Community is a full continuum of care community with assisted living, independent living, memory care, and rehab. She works with residents specifically in Memory and Rehab. According to Fischer, “Therapy dogs provide therapeutic stimulation, primarily in our Memory Care Center, where residents with Alzheimer’s and other related dementias live. The pets visit on a regular basis. One particular resident, a Holocaust survivor, was afraid of dogs, but now she smiles when one particular dog comes, and she pets him. The animals help residents to relax, and they stimulate laughter.”

10. New Generation of Service Dogs
Several research teams are examining the potential benefits of bringing specially-trained animals into clinical settings. These animal-assisted therapies are increasingly offered in hospitals and nursing homes nationwide. Although there is little solid scientific evidence confirming the value of this type of therapy, clinicians who watch patients interacting with animals say they can clearly see benefits, including improved mood and reduced anxiety[15].

Another example: One in three dogs living with a person with diabetes has the ability to alert their owner to a sudden drop in blood glucose levels–which can be lifesaving. Research suggests they may respond to a change in smell given off by the chemical decrease. Dogs4Diabetics, www.dogs4diabetics is working to train dogs for this specific purpose. Another example: the Ron & Vicki Santo Diabetic Alert Dog Foundation, named after dog lover and Chicago Cubs Player Ron Santo [http://ronsantofoundation.com] has a mission to educate people about the availability and efficacy of Diabetic alert dogs, and to raise funds to assist approved clients with the purchase of a diabetic alert dog

Dogs have also been trained to alert people when children are having seizures and to lay next to them to prevent them from hurting themselves in the process. Some dogs can even perform normal tasks that are difficult for Parkinson’s patients, which helps them to live more independent lives such as picking up dropped items and open doors.

11. ADHD
Owning and caring for a companion animal can help kids with ADHD burn excess energy, learn responsibility, focus and self esteem.

12. Social Connectivity
Man’s best friend may help people make more human friends, too. Several studies have shown that walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps a person to stay socially connected. Studies have clearly shown that people who have more social relationships tend to live longer and are less likely to show mental and physical declines as they grow older[16]. It’s hard to walk a dog or have a dog playing in a dog park, and not have someone talk to you or interact with you, compared to walking alone.

13. High-Touch
The healing power of touch is powerful. Research indicates a 45-minute massage[17]can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol and optimize the immune system by building white blood cells. Hugging floods bodies with oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress, and lowers blood pressure and heart rates. It follows that stroking a dog or cat can lower blood pressure and heart rate, and boost levels of serotonin and dopamine.

14. Companion Animals make us more responsible (but be responsible, first)
Companion animals in general are great teachers of responsibility, especially for children. With pets come great responsibility; and responsibility, according to depression research, promotes mental health. Psychologists assert that we build our self-esteem by taking ownership of a task, by applying our skills to a job. When a new companion animal arrives at home, very soon the kids will learn that there is a huge responsibility. That cute puppy or kitten is not like a stuffed toy that can be left alone when you are finished with it. Instead, it makes noise, it pees, poops and will cough up the occasional hairball. It also rips things up and requires a lot of consistent and patient training.

Failing to realize this responsibility has unfortunately resulted in many unwanted dogs and cats left abandoned at no-kill animal shelters.

On the responsibility-front: My son was a dog walker for a neighbor’s dog, Cricket. The pride he felt in walking Cricket was a boost to his self-esteem, and he forged a strong bond with his animal companion.

The successful households with companion animals who learn about how to properly care for their furry friends will be immensely rewarded. The kids who actively help in the care of companion animals will likely grow up to be responsible adults too. That’s why chores are so important in teaching adolescents self-mastery and independence.

15. Pets Teach Us Compassion

We learn a lot about compassion through our companion animals. Unfortunately, it is always a very difficult lesson as it is typically taught near the end of our companion animals’ lives. My father learned this lesson the tough way, with his 12 year old cat, Jumblat.

Jumblat’s health was deteriorating in his 12th year, due to a recurring synovial sarcoma (cancer tumor) on his shoulder blade. A vet recommended against surgery because of Jumblat’s age. My dad, stubborn as always, did not listen, and went ahead with the procedure. Jumblat underwent through the same surgery twice, due to the tumor re-growth. Jumblat seemed to bounce back, and the surgeries definitely bought him some time. When the cancer came back a third time, my father listened to the vet. He put him to sleep. Jumblat wasn’t alone, my dad was by his side the entire time. This was probably only the third time in my life that I ever saw my dad cry.

I realized, from my dad’s experience, that facing your pet’s life-threatening illnesses is heart-breaking; and perhaps his hesitation and delay in putting Jumblat to sleep may have caused his precious animal companion unnecessary suffering. This tough lesson of compassion is humbling. I hope I will have the courage to listen to my vet, not hesitate, and stay present with my companion animal during a euthanasia procedure, if it ever becomes necessary.

A Final Thought
“No matter how close we are to another person, few human relationships are as free from strife, disagreement, and frustration as is the relationship you have with a good dog [or any beloved companion animal]. Few human beings give of themselves to another as a dog gives of itself. I also suspect that we cherish dogs because their unblemished souls make us wish – consciously or unconsciously – that we were as innocent as they are, and make us yearn for a place where innocence is universal and where the meanness, the betrayals, and the cruelties of this world are unknown.”
Dean Koontz, “A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog”

SIDE-BAR: Reducing Health Risks from your Companion Animal [18]
Kids, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk for getting sick from animals. Take these steps to reduce your risk.
            o Wash hands thoroughly after contact with animals.
            o Keep your animal companion clean and healthy, and keep vaccinations up to date.
            o Supervise children under age 5 while they’re interacting with animals.
            o Prevent kids from kissing their animal companion or putting their hands or other objects in their mouths after touching animals.
            o Avoid changing litter boxes during pregnancy. Problem pregnancies may arise from toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease spread by exposure to cat feces.

Special thanks to experts who contributed to this article:
1. Allen Wagner, LMFT, learn more about him at www.alosangelestherapist.com
2. Esai, See Pres Release for more information, or to learn more about the program at http://prn.to/18CUHyW
3Tammy Delgado, PR Connector, 919 Marketing; & Chris Dobson, former Vet Tech and owner, SYNERGY HomeCare franchise
4. Marlene Heller, Director Marketing & Communications, Jewish Home and Care Center Chai Point, Sarah Chudnow Community [Milwaukee WI]; & Malia Fischer, Activity Coordinator 

About the Blogger: 
Deb is a healthcare communications professional, and is interested in all things healthcare. Find her at:
Twitter @debhealthcare

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborahkaufman777


[1] source: Grimshaw
[2] source: Grimshaw
[3] source: Grimshaw
[4] source: Odenaal
[5] source: Duncan
[6] source: Lynch

[7] source: Cosgrove
[9] source: NIH http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2009/February/feature1.htm
[11] source http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2009/February/feature1.htm
[12] source: http://old.seattletimes.com/html/health/2014559627_webpets22.html
[13] source: http://old.seattletimes.com/html/health/2014559627_webpets22.html
[14] source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1582144/Owning-a-cat-cuts-stroke-risk-by-third.html
[15] source NIH, see link http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2009/February/feature1.htm
[16] source: NIH http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2009/February/feature1.htm
[17] source: Moraska, A., Chandler, C. (2009). Changes in Psychological Parameters in Patients with Tension-type Headache Following Massage Therapy: A Pilot Study. J Man Manip Ther. 17(2):86-94.
[18] Source: http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2009/February/feature1.htm

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