Medical Self-Care: Health Benefits of Pet Ownership

article image
Photo by Fololia/byjeng
A ceiling fan will help reduce dampness in an earth-sheltered home.

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.

Among other benefits, our pets provide us with an intimate bond with another living being. Such bonds — like the intimacy of close human relationships — seem to produce a kind of antistress armor that protects us from the pressures that might otherwise predispose us to illness.

Pets Are Family Members

University of Maryland researcher Dr. Ann Cain found that 87 percent of pet owners thought of their pets as members of the family; 81 percent felt that pets tuned in to their feelings; and 38 percent celebrated their pet’s birthday.

Pets can help bring families together by promoting interaction among family members, by relieving the stress of simply being a busy parent or a growing child and by helping children learn the importance of responsibility and discipline.

Even a pet’s death can serve to bring family members closer together. “Shared feelings of grief can form a strong family bond,” says Dr. Michael Fox, scientific director of the Humane Society of the United States, “uniting children and parents in love and respect.” Many older people feel a need for more love and affection. “Companion animals may be a significant source of warmth, affection, love and devotion,” Dr. Bustad writes. “In some cases animals are the only source. In many cases, a pet becomes a person’s reason for living.”

Pet Therapists

Animals can often help those who can no longer be helped by other people; in particular, pets can help people who feel withdrawn, depressed or hopeless. Emotionally disturbed children who refuse to interact with human therapists will frequently become very involved with a dog and may even confide in it. Once the child and the dog have begun to play, the therapist may be able to join in. Child and therapist may later go on to form a direct relationship.

Pets and Stress

The dog who greets us at home or the cat who chases a bit of string or hides in an empty paper bag provides us with an invitation to laugh, relax and enjoy ourselves. The blood pressures of hypertensive patients have dropped considerably while watching tropical fish. Looking at fish tanks has also helped anxious patients relax before oral surgery.

Nursing homes have discovered the therapeutic value of bringing pets to residents. Pet adoption and pet visitation programs are now under way in cities across the country. Call your local Humane Society or Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) for information on local programs.

Caring for a Pet: Teaching Children About Responsibility

The task of caring for a pet is often a child’s first serious responsibility. Throughout our lives, our pets pull us back into the daily rounds of the natural world with their needs for continuing care.

Feeding the cat, bathing the dog, tending the fish tank, taking the parakeet on your finger — these little acts of caring assure the care giver that he or she is truly needed. Such feelings can at times serve as a true lifeline.

The child who once fed the dog may many years later have little strength or opportunity to help another human being. But he or she can still continue the life-giving rituals of caring by tending a goldfish in a bowl, providing a saucer of milk for a stray cat or putting out crumbs for the winter birds.

Clearly, all of us — young and old — benefit immeasurably from the companionship and love pets give us and allow us to give in return. You can experience the health benefits of pet ownership for yourself by making a new furry (or feathery) friend.