by Danielle Einav, LCSW and Douglas Segan, MD
What would you think if your doctor prescribed a pet?
Americans get of lot of criticism for failing to make healthy lifestyle choices. But we’re doing at least one thing right. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. households own one or more pets. A wealth of scientific research and anecdotal evidence indicates that canine and feline companionship contribute to human wellbeing. Owning pets of any species can be therapeutic. Here is an overview of some of the benefits of pet ownership.
Improving your Cardiovascular Risk
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), owning pets can be good for your heart–and not just metaphorically. It can actually decrease blood pressure and improve triglyceride and cholesterol levels.
A fascinating study of New York stockbrokers with hypertension showed that owning a cat or dog helped blunt the blood pressure and heart rate response to mental stress. Pet ownership was found to be more effective than the antihypertensive lisinopril (an ACE inhibitor) in this study (Hypertension, Oct., 2001). After the results were reported, many of the stressed-out brokers from the control group who did not have pets went out and got them (Science Daily, Nov. 8, 1999).
And the news gets even better than that. If you’ve suffered a heart attack, owning a pet improves your chances for a good outcome: you’re more likely to survive both the initial hospitalization after the event and the whole year following the attack (American Journal of Cardiology, Dec. 15,1995).
Pets and Kids
Having pets isn’t important only for harried adults. Owning a pet is also great for kids. For one thing, it can help boost a child’s self-esteem. Caring for another being can be a good way for children to learn responsibility and empathy. And while we all value the non-judgmental, unconditional love of a dog or cat, children may get particular benefit from these relationships.
On top of that, some studies have shown that mere exposure to pets may actually have long-term health benefits. Children exposed to pets during their first year of life appear to be less likely to develop asthma and some allergies (Clinical and Experimental Allergy, May, 1999; Feb., 2013), although the epidemiology is not unanimous on this point (PLoS ONE, Aug. 29, 2012).
Pets may also help children feel safer and more secure. If your child is undergoing a medical or dental procedure and it is feasible for the medical team, the presence of a beloved pet may help reduce his or her anxiety level. Therapy dogs have also been trained to help children learn to read (National Geographic News, online Oct. 28, 2010). Children who may feel insecure reading aloud in class are often more comfortable reading to the family dog, who will listen without passing judgment. Therapy animals have even been used in court trials to help children brave the harrowing task of offering difficult testimony in cases of abuse or neglect (New York Times, Aug. 8, 2011).
Additionally, a few enlightened educational programs across the country have started using animals to help children with special needs. Some children with autism find that it is easier to interact with animals than humans, and experts have argued that this may help them interact with people (NIH News in Health, Feb., 2009). Kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may benefit from having a pet because it could help them focus. There is some evidence that this might help them concentrate on other things (Helpguide.org online articles, June 2011 and Feb. 2012). But even if it doesn’t improve their schoolwork, spending time with a pet may offer a useful outlet for children with learning disabilities. The animal could give them a meaningful channel for dealing with stress and frustration.
Seniors who own a pet or spend time with a neighbor’s animals can reap multiple benefits. Senior pet owners go to the doctor less often for minor health issues. Pets provide valuable companionship and decrease feelings of loneliness. In a study done at a nursing home that actively used pets for therapy, the cost of medication use was reduced by half (American Journal of Hospital & Palliative Care, July-Aug., 2004).
Pets Improve Mental Health
Pets are mood enhancers. Many pet owners report that pets improve their mental health (Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, Dec., 2011). Most people find that holding and petting a loving animal is relaxing. Interacting with pets can reduce stress levels, presumably by reducing the level of cortisol.
Pets help ward off depression and loneliness. While dogs and cats get most of the attention, other animals great and small also deserve credit. For some of us, watching fish in an aquarium can have a calming effect. Matching the right pet to the right person based on their respective needs and abilities requires attention. Active people may benefit from having a dog, while stay-at-home pet owners may benefit from a cat, hamster or fish, all of which may enhance emotional stability through the structure of walks, feedings, and play time.
Dogs Encourage Exercise
Having a dog promotes fitness. Walking or running with a dog makes the outing more enjoyable. Dog owners are more likely to walk regularly because the dog insists upon it. Both benefit from the exercise with less stress and better overall health. As a blog published in The New York Times put it, “A dog will never try to talk you out of going for a walk.”
In a study from the University of Missouri, public housing residents were encouraged to walk “loaner” dogs. Although they did not own the dogs, they felt responsible for the walks, stuck with the program remarkably well and lost an average of fourteen pounds over the course of a year (Clinical Nursing Research, Nov., 2010).
Dogs and Social Life
Man’s best friend could help you make more human friends. Pets provide a social lubricant that is safer than alcohol. With a friendly pet at your side, strangers will strike up a conversation with you. If you are prone to shyness, having a trusty dog with you will make social interactions easier.
An animal with the right temperament is of great use to people in outpatient clinics, hospitals, nursing homes and hospice units. The pet can improve mood and reduce anxiety. There are volunteer groups around the country that promote these programs and train therapy dogs for use in psychiatric and medical settings. If you think this would be a good fit for you and your pet, please contact one of these valuable organizations, such as The Good Dog Foundation, Delta Society, and Therapy Dogs International.
Some mental health therapists in private practices are also using pets for animal-assisted therapy. Having a well-behaved pet in their offices helps break the ice with pediatric patients who are difficult to engage or have trouble relating to others. Older patients may also benefit. An Israeli research paper reported on the benefit of animal companions for patients with schizophrenia, a psychiatric condition classified by paranoid ideas or bizarre beliefs that often leads to social isolation (American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, Fall 2001).
Pets Help those with Life-Threatening Illnesses
Dogs with special training have been adopted as service animals for people with epilepsy and diabetes. They have saved lives by warning of an impending seizure or an episode of low blood sugar.
A study in England found that pet ownership was helpful to women coping with breast cancer. A study of men with AIDS found that those who owned a pet were less likely to suffer from depression (AIDS Care, April 1999). A report from the University of California at Davis found that Alzheimer’s patients suffer less stress and have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a pet in the home (Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, July, 1995). A survey of families dealing with tragedy found that pet ownership was beneficial in dealing with the crises.
If you are looking to add a pet to your home, please keep in mind that a companion animal is a life-long responsibility and not a decision to be taken lightly. As discussed, pets can provide great benefits to the lives of their owners, but before deciding to own a pet be sure to consider carefully the time, money and commitment required. An inadequately trained pet could add a great deal of stress to the household, while not caring for an animal properly is unfair to it and has negative consequences for the humans with whom it interacts.
Danielle Einav, LCSW, is a clinical social worker and dog owner.
Doug Segan, MD, is an emergency medicine physician and attorney.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like our radio interview with Dr. Marty Becker, America’s veterinarian, on The Healing Power of Pets.