Could Little Fifi Be Saving Your Life? The Surprise Benefit of Owning a Pet

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Whether it’s for companionship, exercise, protection or emotional support, a surprising number of us share our home with animals.

Cuteness aside, did you know that caring for a pet can also make you healthier? It’s called The Pet Effect, and it’s surprising.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimates that 36.5% of American households (including mine) have dogs, and 30.4% have cats.

According to the Center for Disease Control, owning a pet can decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness, while increasing your opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities and socialization.

As I’m sure you’re aware, owning a pet is a privilege, and a huge responsibility. The animals we bring into our homes rely on us for nourishment and care. In return, they love and support us — it’s a simple relationship, and one which can have unexpected health benefits for us!

Humans have coexisted with animals for thousands of years, beginning with wolves trained to assist in hunting. Evidence found in Israel shows canines being buried with humans during the neolithic age — as early as 12,000 years ago. The remains of dogs similar to our modern pets have been found with Chinese human skeletons 6000 years old. Domestication of cats, traditionally kept for vermin control, began with the Egyptians around 4000 years ago.

Dr. Peter Eyre, dean at Virginia-Maryland, explains “We’ve known for generations that companion animals have beneficial effects on human health and well-being, but we haven’t understood very much about why that is so.”

“The general belief is that there are health benefits to owning pets, both in terms of psychological growth and development, as well as physical health benefits,” agrees Dr. James Griffin, a scientist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “But there have been relatively few well-controlled studies. That’s the state of the science, in a nutshell.”

Physical health

It’s true, pet owners are more physically fit. Dog owners are leaner and more physically active because they walk their dogs. Personally, it’s amazing how motivating sad puppy dog eyes can be when it comes to getting me off the couch.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the number one killer of American adults. Strangely, pet owners have lower risk of CVD — even when we take smoking, BMI, diet and socioeconomic status into account.

Generally, CVD is caused by high blood pressure, poor cholesterol levels, and smoking. More than 30% of Americans have high cholesterol – a condition which is costing taxpayers billions. Lowering LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol can mostly be achieved by diet – but could petting your cat be helping you out? Research says yes.

Owning a pet also significantly increases your chance of surviving after a heart attack, especially if you have a cat.

Pet owners have lower triglyceride, LDL and blood pressure results than non-pet owners, so for people at risk of cardiovascular disease, the news is good!

What about allergies?

Well, owning a pet can reduce children’s risk of eczema and atopic (allergen-related) asthma, and cats (but not rabbits or rodents) can reduce wheezing. Allergic diseases like asthma, eczema, food allergies, rhinitis (runny nose) and wheezing often go hand in hand – meaning childhood pet ownership can boost your immune system throughout your life!

There’s mixed allergy results in adults — a recent study by the Italian Society of Hypertension found that if people already have allergies, exposure to cats and rabbits can reduce their severity, but exposure to dogs can worsen them. Another study found that having both cats and dogs as a child has a combined positive effect, and prevents development of other allergies.

If you have Type 1 Diabetes, you’re more likely to have it under control if you have a pet. What’s an animal have to do with your blood sugar? This study found that diabetics who care for a pet are more likely to care for themselves as well.

Major diseases aside, this study by Cambridge University’s Companion Animal Research Group found that acquiring a pet coincided with a reduction in ‘minor health problems’ (colds, infections etc). Stress is also easier to manage with your furry friend’s support, resulting in fewer doctor’s visits.

Will getting a pet keep you well? It seems so.

Mental Wellbeing

Having pets makes us happy — we all know that. They’re cute, they’re distracting, they provide structure and support.

There’s more to it than that, however. Stress, depression and loneliness are not just states of mind — they affect your whole body as well.

Loneliness is a common, and surprisingly big health concern, especially in older people and those who live alone. It’s linked to coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, diabetes, and dying younger.

Pet owners have greater self esteem, less anxiety, a higher ability to withstand social rejection, and a better reaction to stress.

Did you know that interacting with your pet releases oxytocin? Known as the ‘love hormone,’ it also plays an important role in minimising fear and anxiety.

The solution? Get a pet. You’ll be 36% less likely to be lonely when you have a fish to talk to, or a cat to be ignored by.

Animal Assisted Therapy

It’s a fairly new technique in the medical field, but Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is proving to be extremely effective. It takes pets to a whole new level — using their abilities to comfort and focus, de-stress and empathize to treat mental and physical illness. Just like guide dogs, they’re professionally trained for assisting people with illness and disability.

Autism and ADHD sufferers benefit greatly from this therapy, as do the elderly and disabled. Emotional support animals are now recognized in many states as therapy dogs, and are certified to be able to go anywhere their owner does.

Aquariums are used in respite care, with excellent results for both patients and staff. Therapy animals also help people be more receptive to treatment, by alleviating their fear and distracting from the pain.

“You can see the difference it makes in so many patients when the dog is at their bedside,” says Dr. Ann Berger, a researcher and physician treating life-threatening illnesses at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda “Our patients are often here for a long period of time. I think the dogs add a bit of normalcy to a very difficult situation. The dog will sit calmly, and the patients don’t have to talk to anyone. They can just pet. I think this helps with some of the suffering.”

Pets don’t just love us, they need us.

Animals are loyal to their owners — and it’s not just because we feed them. They thrive on social interaction. A 2014 study tested dogs’ reactions to a feeding robot, with improving results as the robot showed more ‘human-like’ social behavior.

There are innumerable stories of animals displaying unbelievable loyalty to their people — despite potential harm to themselves, irrelevant of consequences, and over long periods of time.

Carl Rogers, one of the founders of modern psychology, called this Unconditional Positive Regard. Following on from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, he added that in order for a person to experience personal growth, they need genuineness (openness and self-disclosure), empathy (being listened to and understood), and acceptance (unconditional positive regard) – all of which we get from our pets.

They love us, no matter what. And they show us every day.

“Generally, our capacity for extending unconditional positive regard to others is a function of the extent to which we have experienced it ourselves,” explains Dan Mager, MSW, author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain. “Unfortunately, for most of us, the positive regard shown us by other people [is] usually attached to various conditions of worth.”

Not so with animals. Dogs, for example, aren’t called ‘man’s best friend’ for no reason.

Basically, being loved unconditionally gives you the ability to love others — including yourself.

Dog snuggles = personal growth? I’ll take all I can get.

So, what if you don’t have, or can’t have a pet?

That’s ok. Even watching videos of animals can calm you down, slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. Petting someone else’s animal friend has a similar effect.

Human-animal interaction has some amazing benefits, both physical and mental. Sharing our homes with animals motivates us to exercise, stay healthy, and be empathic, as well as helping us lessen worry, anxiety and loneliness.

Generally speaking, if you’re willing to care for an animal, chances are you’re more willing to look after yourself.

If you’d like to learn more about getting a pet, check out the ASPCA website for more information.

Please consider adoption — there are plenty of animals out there desperate for homes. Find your new best friend today!

Have a story about how a little furball has helped you in life? Share the love in the comments below!


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