As a physician, I have always been intrigued by the bond between people and their animals, for I am convinced that pets improve health and that owning a furry—or not so furry—friend can be powerful medicine.
Pets Improve Health in Multiple Ways
Though owning a pet doesn’t make you immune to illness, pet owners are, on the whole, healthier than those who don’t own pets. Study after study shows that pets improve health in a variety of ways. For instance, people with pets have fewer minor health problems, require fewer visits to the doctor and less medication, and have fewer risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol levels.
If you own an energetic puppy, it’s almost impossible not to get adequate exercise. If you have a loyal and protective dog, you’re probably not suffering through sleepless nights. And if a faithful cat is constantly rubbing up against your legs or purring contentedly in your lap, it’s hard to feel lonely.
Interacting with animals—holding them, petting them, brushing their fur, scratching their bellies—produces measurable, positive physiological responses in humans. In one landmark study, volunteers experienced a 7.1/8.1 mm Hg drop in systolic/diastolic blood pressure when they talked to and petted their dogs, as opposed to reading aloud or resting quietly.
Get a Pet and Call Me in the Morning
I believe so strongly that pets improve health that I sometimes even prescribe them to my patients. Pets are particularly therapeutic for older people, especially those who live alone. They are less likely to exercise regularly, eat properly, and get the social interaction that is so important to mental health and physical well-being. An affectionate dog or cat provides companionship, love, and a sense of security. As German playwright Fritz von Unruh wrote, “The dog is the only being that loves you more than you love yourself.”
But it’s not just the affection animals give that makes them so therapeutic. Pets improve health because they require care and affection as well. They must be fed, watered, groomed, and nurtured. When patients resist my advice to acquire a dog or cat, claiming that owning a pet is too much responsibility, I tell them that this is precisely the point. Owning an animal gives you a reason for getting out of bed in the morning, and taking care of its needs helps keep your mind off your own troubles. Having a furry companion in the house provides a sense of structure to your day and meaning to your life.
Pets Improve Health by Mending Hearts and Minds
Some of the most fascinating research on how pets improve health involves the effects that interacting with animals has on the seriously ill. From studies of the use of “animal-assisted therapy” with stroke patients to the benefits of pet ownership for people with Alzheimer’s, there is growing interest in the important role animals can play in helping patients cope with or recover from serious illness.
Heart disease. In one of the earliest studies of the effects of pet ownership on patients with heart disease, researchers looked at the mortality rate among 96 patients who had been admitted to a coronary care unit for heart attack or angina. The mortality rate among those who didn’t own pets was 22 percent higher than that rate among pet owners in the year following hospitalization. It wasn’t just dog owners (who likely got more exercise than non-dog owners) who benefited. Of the 10 patients who had pets other than dogs, all were still alive one year after hospitalization.
Stroke. A stroke is a traumatic event that can render a healthy and vigorous adult helpless. For some, the loss of independence that follows such a devastating and unexpected event can plunge them into a depression that saps their motivation and delays their recovery. Yet a stroke patient who resists encouragement to exercise a weak arm will spontaneously reach out to pet a visiting dog. Animal-assisted therapy, which involves acts as simple as stroking a cat and as complex as playing catch with a trained dog, draws upon the natural human-animal bond to provide sensory stimulation to patients who have suffered a disabling stroke. Working (and playing) with animals also helps alleviate depression and improves self-esteem.
Alzheimer’s disease. Pets improve health for people with neurodegenerative problems as well. Agitation is a common problem among patients with Alzheimer’s disease and can be especially pronounced in the evening (a phenomenon known as “sundown syndrome”). Institutionalized patients are less agitated and smile, laugh and talk more when a therapy dog is present. In a study of 64 patients with Alzheimer’s disease who were living at home, those who had pets experienced fewer episodes of aggression and anxiety, and those who were attached to their pets had fewer mood disorders.
How Pets Improve Health Recap
If you want a pet, do some research first. Whether you live in a big house with a large backyard or a tiny apartment with a “no dogs allowed” policy, you can probably find a pet that suits your needs and lifestyle. Check your library or bookstore for books on choosing a pet, or look online for free information on the selection, care, and feeding of pets as varied as iguanas, chinchillas, cockatoos, and peekapoos. If possible, adopt a pet. There are thousands of animals out there that need a good home. Whatever you choose, you’ll see for yourself how pets improve health—and you’ll have a friend for life.