Is it Healthy to Have a Pet? You Bet

Pets have always held a special place in our hearts. When times get rough, a pet is there for support and friendship. In times of joy and happiness, a pet will celebrate right alongside you and bolster your enthusiasm. And in times of anger, a pet can help you relax and remember to live in the moment for those little sparks of joy. While many of us know the emotional benefits that pets can provide, we tend to overlook the physical advantages to pet ownership and see that pets can improve our health one sloppy kiss or soft purr at a time.

Physical Benefits

Allergy Fighters – A multitude of studies have suggested that children who grow up in homes with “furred animals” like cats, dogs, or even farm animals for that matter, have less risk of developing allergies and asthma later in life. James E. Gern, MD, a pediatrician and researcher at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, has analyzed the blood of babies immediately after birth and one year later, looking for evidence of allergic reactions, changes in immunity and reactions to environmental bacteria. He found that if a dog lived in the home, there was a 19% chance that an infant would show evidence of pet allergies while if a dog did not live in the home, this chance increased to 33%. Additionally, infants raised with dogs had higher levels of immune system chemicals which is a sign of stronger immune system activation. Thus the old thought that if your family had a pet the children were more likely to become allergic to that pet is continually being broken down by scientists like James E. Gern. who state, “babies who have greater exposure to dirt and allergens have a stronger immune system.”

For people who already have allergies yet still want an animal companion, here are a list of different cat and dog breeds that are said, but not proven, to be hypoallergenic:

Dogs: Bedlington Terrier, Bichon Frise, Chinese Crested, Irish Water Spaniel, Kerry Blue Terrier, Labradoodle (cross between a Labrador Retriever and a Poodle), Maltese, Poodle, Portuguese Water Dog, Schnauzer and Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier.

Cats: Sphynx, Siberian, Balinese, Oriental Shorthair, Javanese, Cornish Rex and Devon Rex.

Routine Exercise – Our four legged friends can also help us get off of the couch and into a daily exercise routine. Pets need exercise just as much as we do and what a better way to stay physically fit than with your animal companion. If you live on a farm, large animals provide a reason to get outdoors and move around. Whether it’s going to feed the cows and sheep or saddling up a horse for a leisurely trail ride, all of these activities can provide a great source of exercise that humans need. If you have a smaller pet such as a dog or cat, exercise comes in the form of a leash. Taking daily walks with your pet can help you stick to a regular exercise routine and slim down. Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine has studied 18-87 year olds who participated in a program in which participants took shelter dogs for a walk each morning. She found that people who took part in the program “lost weight…felt great, and they were doing something wonderful.”

For the person with fitness in mind, here are some dogs that love a good walk or run:

Dogs: Boxer, Rottweiler, Doberman Pinscher, German Shepard, Border Collie, Labrador Retriever, Jack Russell Terrier

Heart Healthy – A 10 year study of more than 4,300 Americans has recently suggested that the stress relief pets provide humans is healthy for the heart. In this study, executive director of the Minnesota Stroke Institute at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Dr. Adnan Qureshi, and his team analyzed data on some 4,435 Americans, aged 35 to 70. Qureshi’s team then tracked the rates of death from all causes, including heart attack and stroke and concluded that cat owners “appeared to have a lower rate of dying from heart attacks.” Additionally, cat owners showed a 30% reduction in heart attack risk over 10 years compared to people living without a feline friend. Another study led by Kathie Cole, a clinical nurse at the UCLA Medical Center and School of Nursing, concluded that dogs helped the heart as well. In this study, 76 patients with heart failure were visited by dogs from 12 different breeds and found to have reduced rates of anxiety by 24%. Both researchers believe that pet ownership can potentially save or extend lives and, unlike medications or surgical procedures, “doesn’t appear to have any risks.”

Dogs: Any type of dog that you find to be compatible.

Cats: Any type of cat that you find to be compatible.

Assistance for Owners – Pets can offer assistance in many different ways to people who need extra help in their daily activities. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act defined a service animal as “any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” One form of such assistance is guide dogs for the blind. Through a rigorous training program, dogs can be trained to guide their owners safely from point a to point b. Another type of assistance that a dog can provide is hearing for the deaf. Hearing dogs alert owners of sounds such as doorbells, smoke alarms, ringing telephones or alarm clocks and are normally trained for close to a year. Other service dogs such as medical response dogs also alert their owners to alarms, but rather alarms within their own bodies. Diabetes alert dogs can be trained to detect when their handler’s blood sugar becomes too high or low and alert their owner before the incident occurs. Seizure response dogs can sometimes alert their owners before a seizure happens and can provide potentially life saving assistance in the event of one. Dogs are not the only animals, however, who assist their owners in day to day activities. Capuchin monkeys can be trained to perform such manual tasks as operating knobs and switches and turning the pages of a book. Miniature horses can be trained to guide the blind, pull wheelchairs or support people with Parkinson’s disease.

For the person who needs assistance, here are some service animals who provide great help to people around the world every day:

Hearing, Guide and Physical Assistance Dogs: Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Shepard

Seizure alert Dogs: Golden Retriever, Samoyed, Border Collie, German Shepard

Here are some useful websites for information about different types of service animals:

www.guidingeyes.org

www.dogsforthedeaf.org

www.diabeticalertdog.com

Emotional Benefits

Improve Your Mood – When you wake up in the morning to the soft purr of a cat or a big sloppy kiss from a dog, how can you not be happy? A pet’s love is unconditional and when you are feeling down, it seems as if your pet knows just the thing to do to cheer you up.

Protection/Stress Relief – Many people feel much safer when there is a pet in the house for protection. Whether it’s a Saint Bernard or a chihuahua, our four-legged friends provide comfort and security in the form of alerting their owners whenever anyone is attempting to enter their house. A University of Missouri-Columbia study has recently concluded that just petting a dog or cat for 15 minutes releases the feel-good hormones serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin and lowers the stress hormone cortisol. Furthermore, a study by UCLA Professor Judith M. Siegel called “Stressful Life Events and Use of Physician Services Among the Elderly: The Moderating Role of Pet Ownership” discusses how pets seemed to help their owners in times of stress. Through her research, Professor Siegel found that “the accumulation of stressful life events was associated with increased doctor contacts for respondents without pets; however, this relationship did not emerge for pet owners.”

Combat Depression and Loneliness – People can turn to their pet for comfort in times of trouble. According to the National Institute of Health, “a benefit of pet ownership and attachment in combatting depression…was found among older persons in situations of personal stress who were without adequate human social support.” Additionally, when humans are alone, there is a greater tendency for depression to arise. Having an animal companion in the house or out on the farm can help ease the sense of loneliness or isolation that certain people feel.

Promote Interaction – Whether walking your pet or bringing him/her to a nursing home, animals promote interaction among their owners. More specifically, animals can promote interaction between older residents of nursing homes or health centers via specific programs such as H.E.A.R.T or just visiting a relative with your pet companion. The National Institute of Health states “the presence of animals in institutional settings is associated with the tendency for older persons to smile and talk more, reach out toward people and objects, exhibit more alertness and attention, and experience more symptoms of well-being and less depression.”

To quote George Eliot, “animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.” Whether your pet keeps your heart healthy or happy, animals always give so much to us and it’s the least we can do to give back tothem. While it is easy to purchase a cat or dog from a pet store, it means so much more to the animal if you adopt him or her from an animal shelter. That way you can save an animal’s life at the same time that they save yours.

If you want to adopt an animal from a great place, you can check out the website www.petfinder.com.

Sources:

http://www.dopingkontroll.com/siegel.pdf

http://www.drsfostersmith.com/pic/article.cfm?aid=1201

http://health.usnews.com/usnews/health/healthday/080221/cats-help-shield-owners-from-heart-attack.htm

http://www.lifewithdogs.tv/2012/05/five-great-reasons-to-own-a-pet/

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/16/health/16dog.html

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