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Posted on 09-12-2016

Pets and Health, by Jennifer Mathews, DVM, Southpark Veterinary Hospital

Maybe it's a stretch to say that owning pets keeps us young, but the staying healthy part is well-documented. A recent article1 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology surveyed findings from 69 studies on human-animal interactions and reported their effect on such parameters as empathy, mood, stress hormones, heart rate, blood pressure, and survival after heart attack.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • The presence of a pet increases positive social interactions with others. Several studies showed that people walking or holding a dog (including those in wheelchairs) enjoyed more eye contact, more smiles, and more positive conversations with others. Other studies showed both the pet owner and those around him or her demonstrating more empathy, trust, and helpfulness. Most pet lovers know this already, but the studies showed that our pets make us nicer!
  • Petting a dog lowers stress hormones. Researchers used the participant's own dog and an unfamiliar-but-friendly dog, and found that running your fingers through a strange pooch's fur had the same lowering effect on cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine--hormones that soar during times of stress. We've all heard of 'comfort' dogs who help those after disasters and tragedy. Now, thanks to these results, many senior facilities allow pets or have a resident dog. The better dog-friendly facilities also offer a 'bark park' and schedule regular visits from local veterinarians. 
  • Petting a dog is good for your heart. Multiple studies showed that petting an animal lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and also decreases cardiovascular reactivity in stressful situations. In another sample, heart attack patients who owned pets had a higher 1-year-survival rate than those without pets. Both dog and cat owners take less heart medications than their non pet-owning peers. (scroll down for more reasons to own a pet!)

  •  Pet Owners Are Generally Healthier. Long-term studies of older couples in both Australia and Germany found the best health in the group that owned pets continuously. These folks had 15% fewer doctor visits and took less sleeping medication than non pet-owners. Another study showed older couples (empty nesters) had better mental and physical health if they owned pets. Dog owners, particularly, exercised more, reported better health, slept better, and took fewer days off from work.
  • Learning and Concentration May Improve Around Pets. The research in this area centered on children's ability to learn, pay attention, and perform mental and motor tasks with a friendly dog in the classroom. Other studies are needed to show if these effects continue throughout our lifetimes, but we're really all kids at heart, aren't we?

Bottom Line: Owning a pet is a fun way to stay happy, healthy, and out of your doctor's office! If you need help choosing a dog or cat to adopt, give Southpark Veterinary Hospital a call at (918) 451-1440.

1) Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin. Andrea Beetz, Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, Henri Julius, and Kurt Kotrschai. Front Psychol 2012; 3: 234

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