Pets and your health
The strength of the human animal bond has been known for a long time, but scientific studies were only conducted fairly recently. The very first study was published only about 40 years ago when 2 American psychology researchers measured what happens physically when a person pets a friendly and familiar dog. They found that the person's blood pressure lowered, heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed-all of which are signs of reduced stress.
1 Reduced anxiety and stressLater studies not only confirmed these effects, but showed changes in blood chemistry demonstrating reduced amounts of stress related hormones. It is interesting to note that these positive psychological effects work a lot faster than many drugs taken for stress, since all of these effects occurred after only 5 to 24 minutes of pleasantly interacting with the dog.
There is now a large amount of data confirming that pets are good for your psychological health and may increase, not only the quality of your life, but also your longevity. The benefits are not just short term but last well beyond the time that the pet is in the room, and the positive effects build up over time.
The effect of a pet on children is even more striking. Children with pet dogs have lower levels of the "stress hormone" cortisol when they interact more with their four-legged companions, compared with children who do not actively engage with their dog.
The stress-relieving effects of pets are not limited to dogs. Hearing the purring of a cat on your lap, relaxes most people as well.
Riding and caring for horses helped to reduce cortisol levels and ease stress in teenagers as well.
In recent years this has led to the development of special 'cat cafés' where visitors can interact with cats in order to enhance mental well-being. More and more companies, schools and other organisations also decide to add a pet to their 'staff'!
2 Better heart healthMany of us are aware that good lifestyle choices, such as a healthful diet and regular exercise, are key to reducing risk factors for heart disease. But did you know that your pet could be protecting your heart health, too?
In a 2013 statement from the American Heart Association it was concluced that owning a pet, particularly a dog, may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The reduced risk of cardiovascular disease is partly explained by increased exercise: studies suggest that dog owners are 54 percent more likely to meet physical activity guidelines, compared with the general population.
There's evidence that pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and are less likely to be obese, which may benefit their heart health.
In another Australian study it was discovered that pet owners had lower levels of blood pressure and cholesterol than non-pet-owners, even when both groups had the same poor life styles involving smoking and high-fat diets.
Pets can actually help even if you have started to show evidence of heart problems. In an intriguing American study, researchers followed more than 400 patients after they were released from the hospital after having a heart attack. One year later the pet owners had a significantly higher survival rate than non-pet owners. The affectionate bond and social support provided by their dogs was probably reducing their stress levels, which is a major contributor to cardiovascular problems.
3 Mental healthStress is not the only problem which our bond to our pets can help. Up to 25% of people who go to their doctors do so because they feel sad, depressed or anxious.
People with inadequate human social support can really benefit from pet ownership and the emotional bonds that pets provide. With the weakening of extended family ties, older people are particularly at risk of becoming lonely, isolated and depressed.
The likelihood that the non-pet owners would end up being diagnosed as clinically depressed is 4x higher that that found in the pet owning people of the same age. Pet owners also required fewer medical services and were much more satisfied with their lives.
The easy and relaxed relationship that most people with have with pets also brings another benefit to people living alone. People report that when they are out walking with their dogs strangers are much more likely to stop and talk with them-mostly because there is a dog to say hello to, and people seem to want that moment of relaxed interaction with a pet.
While having a pet cannot cure mental illness, studies suggest that it could certainly help.
60 percent of pet owners who had been diagnosed with severe mental illness said that their pet was "most important" for managing their condition.
Participants with pets reported a greater sense of control, as well as a feeling of security and routine.
Animal companions can also help to reduce depression, so much so that many organizations recognize animal-assisted therapy as an effective treatment for depression and other mental illnesses.
An American blog writer wrote this about her dog Buddy "A dog motivates you to get out the door for fresh air and exercise, even when it's the last thing you feel like doing. A dog brings you so much laughter and joy, unlike anything I've experienced before, with their unique personalities and hilarious quirks. And lastly, a dog brings you unconditional love, the kind of love that never stops. With these things in your life, anxiety and depression can be part of your past as it has become a part of mine."
4 Stronger relationships and social skillsMost pet owners have a special bond with their furry friends: more than 66 percent of dog owners and 56 percent of cat owners consider their pet to be a family member.
This pet-owner bond may have a beneficial influence on our other relationships, too.
People with pets report having stronger romantic relationships than non-pet owners; pet owners reported greater overall relationship quality and investment.
Caring for a pet may also improve one's social skills. This is especially beneficial for children with autism, who often struggle with social relationships as they are now more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information, or responding to other people's questions.
Adults who reported greater attachment to animals during adolescence demonstrated greater empathy and confidence in adulthood.
5 Lower risk of allergiesAbout one in 6 Americans suffer from nasal allergies, and pet dander is one of the most common triggers.
Yet, pets can actually lower the risk of developing allergies. Children that are exposed to dogs and farm animals in early life have a much lower risk of developing asthma by school age.
Children that were exposed to household pets prior to birth and up to 3 months after birth experienced changes in gut bacteria associated with childhood allergies.
This supports the "hygiene hypothesis": greater exposure to pathogens and potential allergens at an early age can strengthen the immune system, which may increase tolerance to allergies in later life.
6 Better sleep qualityThose of you who are dog owners will know only too well the frustration of your four-legged pal claiming the sheets at bedtime. But don't kick them off the bed just yet; sharing a bed with your pet may actually lead to a better night's sleep.
Researchers found that 41 percent of surveyed pet owners who allowed their pet to sleep in the bedroom or on the bed said that they did not find their pet disruptive, and they even reported sleeping better, due to the feeling of security, companionship, and relaxation that their pet offers.
If this isn't enough to make you want a pet, I don't know what is, unless you are truly strapped for time, space and/or money.
For those of you, there's always the neighbour's pet whom you may want to 'adopt' and take care for occasionally. Or you may want to frequent one of those cat cafés if there's one near to you.
Or maybe your boss can be persuaded to take a pet as a new staff member!
See also : How pets can improve your health