Our Furry Friends

By Chelle Cordero

November 30, 2011 5 min read

Hearing the pitter-patter of furry little feet, the melodic notes of a birdcall or the gurgling sounds of a fish tank filter should do more than simply stir visions of pet treats and fun. There are studies confirming that owning a pet is good for your health and mental well-being.

Studies have cited the benefits of pet ownership for heart attack recovery, depression, hypertension and even fitness. Pets provide socialization opportunities, a feeling of companionship and a purpose to "get of bed" in the morning, and they are terrific icebreakers and conversation starters. Researchers and statistics say that heart attack patients who have pets survive longer than those without, according to several studies. Male pet owners have fewer signs of heart disease, e.g., lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels, than non-owners.

Stress -- and these are stressful times -- can throw off your body's natural chemistry and cause "illnesses" such as malignant hypertension. Malignant hypertension presents with a significantly high blood pressure and feelings of discomfort and pressure; it is a true medical emergency. However, petting an animal or participating in a pleasurable, relaxing activity can raise levels of serotonin and dopamine, chemicals that help to unwind and soothe. People in high-stress and demanding jobs had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations after adopting a pet than did their counterparts without pets.

All pets offer the common health benefits of reducing stress, including fish, birds, reptiles, hamsters, etc., but some animals lend themselves to cuddling and playing. There are added benefits to owning dogs and cats or other animals that encourage physical interaction. For example, a nightly walk with a dog on a leash is good exercise that helps keep you fit and lowers triglycerides and cholesterol. Pet ownership also opens doors to greater socializing. Conversations start up between dog owners as they discuss breeds and care of their pups.

All too often, well-meaning parents have made their homes pet-free zones to eliminate the possibility of allergies and illnesses for their children. But statistics show that up to 33 percent of infants and young children showed less tendency toward animal allergies when they were raised in homes with a furry critter. Children learn to interact with pets and develop social skills. Having and caring for a pet gives a child a chance to develop responsibility, but the child should never be the sole caretaker.

The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology quoted University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher and pediatrician James E. Gern, M.D., as saying, "A growing number of studies have suggested that kids growing up in a home with 'furred animals' -- whether it's a pet cat or dog, or on a farm and exposed to large animals -- will have less risk of allergies and asthma." There is also less incidence of eczema and stronger immune systems when children are raised with dogs in the home.

There is a great sense of companionship for elderly pet owners where family has grown up and moved away or members have passed on. Owning a pet that has to be cared for, fed regularly and played with enforces a routine and gives purpose. Pets also have a way of reducing anxiety and soothing respiratory functions, which are important benefits for our elders.

For years, individuals and organizations have visited hospitals and senior assisted-living residences with dogs or cats in tow. In health care institutions, the animals help decrease pain by allowing the patients to focus on something other than themselves. They stimulate memories, encourage speech and motivate physical activity. Researchers have also discovered that patients who are regularly visited by therapy pets are often much more willing to accept medical care and are more optimistic about their survival.

While owning a pet may decrease anxiety and related ailments, owning too many pets may also add stress as the cost of their care increases. Be realistic when making your decision to bring an animal into the house. Withholding a pet from someone who wants one could be a source of distress, as well. Prospective pet owners should choose animals with whom they feel most comfortable. Pet ownership is a very personal decision that reflects an individual preference.

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