I grew up in a garden apartment development in New York, quite different from the suburban home my children know. There were tons of other kids around, my best friend lived downstairs, and we walked or rode bikes everywhere. I was never envious of my friends and cousins who lived in private homes, except for one thing: Most of them had dogs, and I could not. They were not permitted in our development.|
As a kid, I longed for a puppy. My folks promised that if we moved, I could get a dog. I left for college from that same apartment and still go back to visit my folks there to this day.
When my daughter turned seven, she began begging us for a dog. I could empathize with her longing, as I felt the same way when I was a little girl. Living in a house with a backyard, I saw no reason why my kids shouldn’t grow up with a pet. And of course, I could finally fulfill my childhood dream of having a dog of my own. We got Emmie, a beautiful golden retriever, who filled our home and hearts with love for 13 years.
Little did I know that bringing a puppy into our house was a positive step toward keeping my family not just happy but healthy. At that point I was totally unaware of the health benefits of owning a pet. I just knew it would add joy to our lives.
The world of positive psychology has taught us that happier people are healthier. It seems moods such as happiness, optimism and playfulness all improve our immune system. Playfulness just comes along with the territory when you bring a puppy, kitten—or any pet, really—into your home.
When it comes to the emotional benefits of owning a pet, there are many. Pet owners report decreased stress and anxiety, depression and loneliness. Behavioral psychologists tell us that human connection is one of our most basic needs. We all seem happiest when we interact with others. Taking care of a pet, attending to their needs and enjoying the companionship intensifies our feelings of being connected, in similar ways to that of human connection.
To that end, owning a pet increases our human connections as well, because it increases our opportunities for socialization. For instance, I work from a home office, and I speak with most of my clients by phone. At times it can be quite isolating. A few years after Emmie left us, Ozzy the Labradoodle joined our family. He lies quietly by my feet while I work at my desk and is my playmate when I take a time out from work.
There’s nothing like his begging eyes or rapid back-and-forth pacing to let me know it’s time for a break. Taking a walk often leads to stopping and chatting with my neighbors. At other times, visiting the dog park or comparing notes with a fellow dog owner in the pet store offers a chance to interact with others I might never meet if not for Ozzy.
Being around animals also has a positive impact on mood. Canine-assisted therapy programs exist throughout the country. So much so, that we could even consider them part of the treatment plan that aids in recuperation from illness and surgeries. Children in hospitals who have visits from therapy dogs and other animals such as kittens or bunnies show a more rapid recovery.
Therapy dogs have been brought into nursing homes to help decrease depression and increase mobility in elderly adults. Animals are being used to help veterans avoid or recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. Vets who own dogs display less PTSD symptoms, have a quicker adjustment to civilian life, and have less incidence of suicide. Pets have even shown to aid in recovery and the return to a normal life after individuals suffer traumatic events such as sexual assault, death of a loved one, or loss of a job.
So clearly, there are tons of emotional benefits to owning a pet, which equate to more positive experiences and greater happiness, which seems to equate to an enhanced immune system, which then translates to being healthier. But do we actually see physical health parameters that are positively impacted by pet ownership?
Many studies have demonstrated that pet owners have decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels when compared to non-pet owners. Lack of exercise and chronic stress are both considered risk factors for cardiac disease. Perhaps it’s the increased physical activity that walking or exercising with our dogs provides, or our pet’s ability to calm us and reduce anxiety, but indeed individuals who share their residence with pets have a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes. If a cardiac event does occur, pet owners have a reduced risk of a second attack or death than non-pet owners. In individuals suffering from chronic conditions that cause pain, those who have a pet in their home display better pain management.
So will owning a dog or cat guarantee we won’t suffer a major illness or trauma? Of course not! But it definitely appears worth considering pet ownership as another healthy lifestyle habit to complement good nutrition, exercise, weight control and stress management.
One fascinating area of research examines the ways in which dogs have helped individuals who are currently suffering with disease and illness. There are scientific reports from the past two decades of dogs sniffing out cancerous growths, and the field of canine cancer screening is growing and promising. Who knows, one day we may visit our doctor and along with an EKG and chest X-ray, get sniffed by a furry friend! According to a 2000 article in the British Medical Journal, more than one-third of dogs living with people who have diabetes have been reported to display behavioral changes when their owners' blood sugar drops, sometimes even before patients themselves were aware of it.
Children who grow up with pets seem to enjoy benefits that could positively affect their growth and development. If a dog or cat is already in the house before a baby arrives, that child is less likely to develop allergies. Children with pets attend school three weeks more per year than those who don’t. Owning any pet, even a fish or hamster, can help with the emotional development of children by fostering compassion and teaching responsibility. Dogs are becoming part of the therapy team to help children with autism, ADD and other psycho-emotional problems.
Choosing the Right Pet
So perhaps I’ve convinced you that adding a pet to your abode is a good idea, one that will make you happier and healthier. Before running out to the nearest pet shop, there are lots of factors to consider. Choosing what type of pet or breed is right for you is an important decision not to be taken lightly. Owning a pet is a huge responsibility and can be quite expensive. You need to consider whether you can afford the time and money that goes into raising a pet responsibly. After all, you don’t want pet ownership to increase your stress.
If cost is the only factor holding you back, finding your pet at a shelter can save you considerably. By adopting a pet, you save thousands that purebred animals purchased through breeders cost, and often the pet shelter offers reduced or low-cost inoculations and veterinarian expenses.
If you decide that the time and circumstances are not right, there are still many ways to enjoy the health benefits of animals. Offer to walk your neighbor’s dog, visit a nearby horse farm or animal shelter, and visit friends who own pets. Even a visit to the zoo can heighten your mood.
If a four-legged pet isn’t possible, perhaps a smaller pet is. Just watching fish and birds has a calming and relaxing effect on us. Ever wonder why so many doctor’s offices have fish tanks in their waiting room? Feeding and keeping the cages clean of pets such as hamsters or gerbils offer your children growth opportunities for being responsible, along with friendship and companionship.
The little girl who convinced us to add a dog to our family is now a young women living on her own across the country. The yearning and longing for a puppy has returned. Unfortunately, now she lives in an apartment building that doesn’t allow pets, 12-hour workdays make caring for one unrealistic, and the cost factor would tax her budget. So, how does my daughter manage to gain the emotional and physical benefits of being with dogs?
Whenever possible, she offers to babysit her friends’ pets when they are away for the weekend. Many of her hiking buddies own dogs. Living close to a park that allows dogs off leash, she is able to enjoy walking alongside her two and four-footed friends. A nearby animal shelter welcomes the occasional visit to play, feed or walk the dogs. And luckily, Ozzy is here, waiting patiently for my daughter's next visit to the East Coast.
Amanda L. Chan, "Pet Health Benefits: Study Shows Dogs And Cats May Make Kids Healthier," from Huffington Post Healthy Living, www.huffingtonpost.com.
CBC News, "Study reveals how service dogs help children with autism," www.cbc.ca, accessed on May 29, 2013.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Health Benefits of Pets" www.cdc.gov, accessed on May 29, 2013.
Jeff Hamilton, "Pets & Kids With ADD," Psychology Today, www.psychologytoday.com.
Paws for Healing, "Canine Assisted-Therapy Information," www.pawsforhealing.org, accessed on May 29, 2013.
Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, "Walking for Healthy Hearts," rechai.missouri.edu, accessed on May 29, 2013.
RSPCA, "What are the health benefits of pet ownership?" kb.rspca.org.au, accessed on May 29, 2013.