The U.S. is a pet-loving country, with around two-thirds of all households reporting owning a dog or cat. To put this into perspective, this amounts to approximately 78.2 million dogs and 86.4 million cats owned by Americans. A cancer specialist affiliated with the Mayo Clinic once noted that “a pet is a medication without side effects….” Indeed there are many ways that pets can contribute to our health and well-being. The following are research-based benefits of pet ownership, broken down into their effect on children, adults, and the elderly.
- Lowered rates of respiratory disease in children. Children who are around dogs and cats during the first year of life have been shown to have fewer respiratory infections, especially ear infections, than children without exposure to these animals. The strongest protective effect was seen in children whose families allowed their dogs to spend time indoors.
- Reduced risk of developing allergies. Research has shown that children growing up in a home with a dog or cat are less likely to develop allergies. This also applies to children who live on a farm or ranch with large animals.
- Improved sense of responsibility. Children who accept responsibility for pet care learn important organizational skills as well as respect for other living beings.
- Help with meeting daily exercise recommendations. People who own dogs tend to be more physically active than those who don’t. Walking briskly with a dog for 30 minutes a day will help meet the current cardiorespiratory exercise recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine. By encouraging their owners to walk, dogs can also be a tool for weight loss. As a weight-bearing exercise, walking has the additional benefit of maintaining bone integrity to help prevent osteoporosis.
- Better blood pressure control. Being around a pet appears to provide a “calming effect” in people with medication-controlled hypertension. One study has demonstrated that the presence of a pet reduces blood pressure rises associated with psychological stress. Another study has shown that borderline hypertension can be controlled with a pet dog, without the need for drug therapy.
- Enhanced mental health. Spending time with a pet–walking, grooming, and playing–can boost levels of the mood-enhancing brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Some psychotherapists “prescribe” pets as a way of dealing with depression. Pets also encourage interaction with others, since most pet owners love to talk about their pets.
- “Serving” pet owners with medical problems. Service animals are used to assist people with various diseases or disabilities. The best known examples are the specially trained dogs that serve as the eyes or ears for people who are visually or hearing impaired. A “seizure dog” is one that has been trained to bark and alert others that their owner is having a seizure. In some cases, the dog can detect that a seizure is getting ready to occur, giving the person time to lie down or move away from a dangerous place. Specially trained dogs can also assist people with neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease to help them live more independently. Some dogs are even able to alert diabetics of a sudden drop in their blood sugar in time for them to eat a snack and avoid becoming severely hypoglycemic.
- Easing the effects of bereavement. People with a strong relationship with their pets experience less depression after the loss of their spouse.
- Improving general health. It has been reported that elderly dog owners visit the doctor less often and require less medical attention for minor health issues as compared to non-dog owners. Older people who walk dogs are more likely than those who walk with a human companion to engage in regular exercise. Improved psychological well-being and higher one-year survival rates following coronary heart disease have also been reported in seniors with companion animals.
- Assisting in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. The use of a therapy dog with persons with Alzheimer’s disease can result in increased socialization, improved social behaviors, and decreased agitation.
- Help with feelings of loneliness. Pets promote social interaction and help seniors to become more involved in daily activities and socializing. Many nursing homes have opened their doors for animal visitation with their residents.
While there are numerous benefits to pet ownership, there are drawbacks also. Next week we’ll look at the “Bad” and the “Ugly” of pet ownership–animals that should be discouraged as pets and some of the medical issues that can develop as a result of living with animals.