Medical Self-Care: Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

Lower blood pressure; longer life expectancy; better heart health. These and other health benefits of pet ownership may convince you to make a furry (or feathery) friend today.

| March/April 1985

Is it possible that a dog leaping and barking with joy when you return home, a cat curled and purring in your lap, or a fish swimming peacefully in a tank can reduce your blood pressure, alter the course of heart disease and decrease your stress level? Recent studies suggest they can do this and more. "I believe the day is coming when doctors will sometimes 'prescribe' pets instead of pills," says Dr. Leo Bustad, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. "What pill gives so much love, makes its owner feel safe, stimulates laughter, encourages regular exercise and makes a person feel needed?" The health benefits of pet ownership are virtually indisputable.

Pets Help You Live Longer 

When University of Pennsylvania researchers studied a group of seriously ill heart patients, they found that the pet owners had much better survival records. In the year the study lasted, the death rate for patients who did not own pets was 28 percent. Pet owners had a death rate of less than 6 percent. 

Another study looked at the health benefits of pet ownership for older people. A British psychologist gave a parakeet to each person in a group of senior citizens. Members of the control group each got a begonia. After five months there was a noticeable increase in health and morale among the pet owners. Swedish researchers found that 15 percent of the elderly persons studied considered their pets to be their most significant social contact.

Other health benefits of pet ownership have also been documented: Petting the soft fur of a dog or cat can profoundly lower blood pressure. Watching fish in a tank is for many people as effective a way of relaxing mind and body as any tranquilizer or meditative technique.

A number of studies suggest that people who own pets are generally in better health than those who do not. These positive effects seem to hold for every kind of pet studied so far, including—but not limited to—dogs, cats, gerbils, parakeets, chickens, fish, mice, rabbits, and iguanas.

The researchers who performed the study of heart disease patients mentioned above concluded that having a pet decreased a person's risk of dying by about 3 percent per year. This would put owning a pet in roughly the same category as other health-promoting behaviors such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, not smoking, being in a committed-couple relationship and having close ties with family and friends.

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