The benefits of pet ownership sometimes seem obvious to those of us who have them: pets are loyal, they’re non-judgmental, they reduce our stress, they sense our mood and respond appropriately, and they’re generally just wonderful to have around. But research over the past several years is starting to elucidate distinct medical benefits beyond our qualitative sense that “pets make us feel good”. Research is starting to solidify the notion that our pets actually do make us healthier. For example:
A recent report out of UCLA studied 76 heart failure patients and assessed their anxiety levels before and after 3 interventions. One group received a visit from a volunteer, one group received a visit from a volunteer with a dog (with which the patient was allowed to interact), and a control group received no visit at all and remained at rest. Vital signs, stress hormone levels and anxiety questionnaires were evaluated for each patient before and after the interventions.
While the blood pressures and hormone levels decreased in both interventions, the apparent positive effect of the dog on anxiety was most dramatic: a 24 percent drop in anxiety levels in the dog group versus a 10 percent drop in the volunteer-alone group and no change in the control group!
This study is consistent with a number of studies of the effects of animals and pets on health and disease over the past 15-20 years. This phenomenon has even spawned a new type of therapeutic approach with specific goals and guidelines, known as “animal-assisted therapy” or “pet-facilitated therapy”.
What are some of the health benefits of pet ownership or of animal-assisted therapy? Below are a few examples:
• Two studies suggest strongly that pet ownership improves 1-year survival after heart attacks.
• ACE inhibitors lower blood pressure quite effectively in patients with hypertension, but they have little effect on the increases that occur with mental stress. However, in patients who own pets and take ACE inhibitors, these stress-induced increases are significantly blunted.
• Male pet owners have significantly lower systolic blood pressures, triglyceride levels, and cholesterol levels than non-pet owners.
• Psychiatric patients with a variety of disorders have been shown to have significantly decreased levels of anxiety following animal-assisted therapy sessions when compared with controls.
• Some studies suggest that medication use and cost can be significantly reduced in settings where pets are actively involved in therapy.
• Several studies show that pet owners make fewer medical appointments and have fewer minor illnesses. In addition, people who acquire pets show significant improvements in measures of psychological well-being and these effects are maintained over time.
• Several aspects of child health are also improved by animal and pet contact on a number of different levels:
o The presence of a dog during a child’s physical exam decreases stress
o The cognitive development of children appears to be enhanced by pet ownership.
o Measures of children’s self-esteem is enhanced by pet ownership
o Children who own pets show more capacity to empathize than those who do not.
o Children with autism who have pets seem to exhibit more pro-social behaviors than those who do not.
And the list goes on and on.
Although these are very difficult studies to perform and invariably there are many factors involved in health maintenance, it seems clear that there are many physiologic and psychosocial benefits of pet ownership and of animal use in therapeutic settings. Many of the effects appear to be the result of decreased stress. As the underlying neurochemical basis for stress-related illness becomes clearer, it will become easier to quantify these effects and allow us to better advocate for using our furry friends to improve health.
In the meantime - - enjoy your pets as you always have and revel in the fact that you are probably healthier because of them!
For more information on the health benefits of pets, visit some of these web sites:
• The CDC’s website on the heath benefits of pets
• The Delta Society – a non-profit group whose mission is “improving human health through service and therapy animals”
• The 1987 consensus statement from the National Institutes of Health on this subject
• A nice summary of a recent conference in Europe on this subject