Pets For a Healthier Life

Whether you already have one or are thinking about getting one, just know this is one of the best decisions a person can ever make. We’re talking about having a four-footed friend.

The following scientific research shows us there are many great reasons to have a pet. Sharing your life with an animal can have positive effects both on your physical and mental health:

“Regardless of how old you are, or how old your pet is, your companion, animal friend is helping you in ways you may not even realize,” said Kelly E. Connolly, M.S., issues specialist at Companion Animals (The Humane Society of the United States).

Physical Health
Researchers at UCLA discovered that a 12-minute visit with “a savvy gal’s best friend” helped heart and lung function by lowering pressures, diminishing the release of harmful hormones and decreasing anxiety among hospitalized heart-failure patients. Benefits exceeded those that resulted from a visit with a human volunteer or from being left alone.

“Pets bring joy and comfort and peace of mind to people suffering with almost any illness. The unconditional love and caring of a pet may be something a person does not get from their human companions,” said Gail Gazelle, MD, FACP, FAAHPM, president of Palliative Care Associates, P.C. and assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“Pets can make all the difference in many medical settings. For many elderly individuals with dementia, they are sometimes the only living presence that the person can still relate to,” Gazelle said.

Pets not only help patients in hospitals, they also help their owners by preventing diseases and improving their overall health. According to Dr. Kathleen Hall, a leading stress management expert and founder of The Stress Institute, your chances of survival will increase 74 percent to 94 percent if you have a pet. Those with a pet have lower blood pressure, cholesterol and stress levels.

Therefore, the savvy gal’s best friend is also an immune system’s best friend. “Your pet’s mere presence may ward off disease,” said Dr. Carl Charnetski, professor of psychology at Wilkes University, Pa and co-author of “Feeling Good is Good For You: How Pleasure Can Boost Your Immune System and Lengthen Your Life.”

Pleasurable activities, such as interacting or playing with your pet, tend to be associated with boosts in immune function. So even though there are many factors that add up to getting sick, these boosts in your immune function can tip that equation so you don’t get sick as often, Charnetski explained.

“Dog, cat, canary — it doesn’t matter,” Charnetski said. “The bottom line is simple and direct: if you like pets, get one and interact with it. The more you connect with the animal world, the more your immune system benefits.”

Mental Health
A number of studies reported at the International Human-Animal Bond meetings indicated that both dogs and cats provided a sense of security, usefulness and emotional responsibility, according to Bonnie Beaver, a veterinarian and a professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Connolly agreed and said: “Mentally, having a companion animal in a person’s life can decrease stress, teach people how to become responsible caregivers, and help people to remain sharp and focused. But perhaps the most important benefits of owning a pet manifest emotionally, and include such phenomena as decreased feelings of isolation and loneliness, increased feelings of belonging and wellbeing, and a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment.”

Pets are also a way for people, especially for adults living alone and children, to share their feelings, Beaver said. Having a companion that doesn’t judge you and loves you unconditionally gives a great sense of belonging. Pets are also a social catalyst because they serve as a reason to get out of the house and interact with other people or pet owners. For example, taking your dog for a walk is more than just a duty. It is an activity that will benefit you on a physical and mental level.

In addition, pets can open communication between family members as a safe, middle ground, with the shared sense of responsibility and love for the pet, Dr. Gazelle said.

So if you own a pet, you are one step closer to a healthier you. And if you don’t have one, run to the shelter and bring home a great companion and let the healing begin.

“It is just plain fun to come home to a loving bundle of fur ready to curl up with you and bring a big grin to your face!” Connolly said.


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