Pet Friends with Benefits

Eat a healthy diet. Get regular exercise. Adopt a pet. Although the first two are known essentials for heart and overall health, adopting a pet, in addition to all the benefits of fun and friendship it brings into your home, has also been shown to promote better health. Pet owners have been shown to generally have better health than their non-pet owning counterparts.

The American Heart Association (AHA) issued a scientific statement stating that owning a pet may help to decrease a person's risk of suffering from heart disease and is linked with lower levels of obesity, blood pressure and cholesterol.

In study of more than 5,200 adults, cited by the AHA, dog owners were more physically active than non-owners because they walk their pets. Other research has revealed the calming effects of pets, which are used in animal-assisted therapy programs. The AHA also noted that there are clear benefits by lowering the risk factors for heart disease. But the studies are not definitive or prove that owning a pet alone directly causes a reduction in heart disease risk.

About 78.2 million people in the United States own a dog and 86.4 million have a cat, according to figures from the American Pet Product Association 2011-2012 National Pet Owners Survey.

Generally speaking, pet owners have been known to have better cholesterol readings, lower blood pressure and lower feelings of anxiety. They also have less of a chance of becoming obese. Research has shown that the loyalty and love pets display can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness in their owners and increase their sense of well-being and self-esteem.

In a recent study, groups of hypertensive New York stockbrokers who got dogs or cats were found to have lower blood pressure and heart rates than those who didn’t get pets. When they heard of the results, most of those in the non-pet group went out and got pets!

People with allergies produce antibodies—which can cause inflammation in the airways (asthma) or the skin (eczema)—in response to irritants like dander and saliva. But exposure to a pet during infancy may mean less chance of developing such reactions in adulthood—possibly, scientists speculate, because the immune system becomes desensitized to allergens.

What's more impressive is that this immune-stabilizing effect appears to begin before birth. One study showed that prenatal pet exposure lowers allergic antibody production in the umbilical cord. Also, cats often know when you are ill, and will often and provide you with comfort, helping you get better while boosting your immune system.

An elderly person’s life can be enriched by having a pet, giving him or her sense of well-being, a sense of encouragement and even a reason for living. Caring for and providing a loving home to a companion animal also helps older people remain healthy and stay active. And being responsible for another life adds new meaning to the lives of those who are living alone or far from loved ones.

Furthermore, a number of patients who are on blood pressure medication have seen their dose requirements reduced as a result of the calming and positive emotional effects a pet may have on them.

Pets can be there for you in ways that people can’t. They can offer love and companionship, and can also enjoy comfortable silences, keep secrets and are excellent smugglers. And they could be the best antidote to loneliness. In fact, research shows that nursing home residents reported less loneliness when visited by dogs than when they spent time with other people.

It’s important to realize that owning a pet isn’t for everyone. Pets do come with additional work and responsibility, which can bring its own stress. However, for most people, the benefits of having a pet outweigh the drawbacks.

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