Any pet lover will tell you that having a dog or a cat is a rewarding experience, but those rewards may be more tangible than just warm fuzzy feelings. Research discoveries are pointing to physiological reasons why owning a pet is good for your health.
Pets and Allergies
Researcher James E. Gern, M.D., a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that a growing number of studies suggest that children who grow up with “furred animals” in the home have a decreased risk of allergies and asthma. “The old thinking was that if your family had a pet, the children were more likely to become allergic to the pet,” says Gern, “and if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided.” However, Gern recently analyzed the blood of babies immediately after birth and then one year later, and the results showed that infants living with dogs were 14 percent less likely to show evidence of pet allergies and had higher levels of some chemicals signifying a stronger immune system.
According to a study from the State University of New York at Buffalo, pet owners are more likely to have lower blood pressure than non-owners. More specifically, a study from the University of Minnesota found that people who do not own a cat are between 30 and 40 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those with feline companions.
Alan Beck, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, found that people interacting with dogs experience a drop in blood pressure – “a true relaxation response,” he says. Researchers in Japan found that dog owners who were bonded to their pets experienced a spike in oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that aids in coping with stress, from simply meeting their dogs’ gazes. In one study, stockbrokers with high blood pressure who adopted a cat or dog subsequently had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations than those without pets.
Many health care professionals are embracing the idea that pets can be a cost-effective approach to improving people’s health. “A pet is a medication without side effects that has so many benefits. It really does help people,” says Dr. Edward Creagan, oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Pet Partners, a human services organization, is on a mission to help lead the world in advancing human health and well-being through positive interactions with animals. Lawrence Norvell, former president and CEO, states that, “At a time in which our society is looking for treatment alternatives to complement Western medicine, research is consistently demonstrating that pets can have a profound impact on people’s physical and emotional health.”
Pets as Therapists
Therapy pets are used in the treatment of pain management, mental disorders, anxiety, emotional problems, trauma and disabilities, as well as in physical therapy. Patients coping with HIV/AIDS experience less depression and lower stress levels when pet therapy is introduced as a part of their treatment. Studies have shown that therapy dogs provide comfort and facilitate learning, and researchers continue to seek supporting empirical evidence.
Valerie McEvoy of Oklahoma City adopted Apollo, an albino Great Dane, and put him through training to become a pet therapy dog. Together they visit nursing homes and other health facilities. “People really light up when he comes to visit them, especially at the nursing home.” says Valerie. “So many of the residents are lonely and miss having pets around, so pet therapy is really beneficial to them emotionally. Apollo is the perfect height for people in wheelchairs to reach. They can easily pet him and look into his eyes. It’s a beautiful experience, and one that I’m really proud to participate in!”
Predictive Pets and Preventative Medicine
Dogs and cats have been reported predicting and signaling all sorts of ailments, including cancer, high blood pressure, seizures, infections and more. Cancer education and research organizations are even training dogs to recognize diseases. While animal behavior experts still don’t understand the exact process, it’s likely that animals “diagnose” by detecting subtle changes in odor given off by chemicals in the body when disease is present.
Additionally, people who own pets benefit from their relationship because the pet requires interaction and encourages increased activity. Simply put, people of all ages living with pets tend to be more physically active, and reap the benefits of improved health as a result. Statistically, pet owners actually make fewer trips to the doctor, have lower medication costs and live longer.
The research and references in this article represent a very small portion of the available information regarding the health benefits of pet ownership and interaction. The takeaway is that pet lovers have been right all along, and the science is there to show that dogs and cats have a positive impact on our lives, and can even prolong them. Not convinced? Try doing your own experiment – adopt a pet and see for yourself.
Access to over 700 scientific abstracts and articles on anthrozoology, the study of the relationships between humans and animals, can be found at anthrozoology.org.
Learn more about Pet Partners (formerly the Delta Society), which helps people live healthier and happier lives with therapy, service and companion animals, at deltasociety.org.
Learn more about the Good Dog Foundation and its mission to promote society’s understanding of the therapeutic value of the human-animal bond by visiting thegooddogfoundation.org.