So you're thinking about getting a pet! You've already considered the downsides: the price of the animal, its food and medical care, the possible allergic reactions that someone in the home may suffer, wear and tear on the house, and the emotional cost of one day losing your beloved friend. However, have you considered all of the potential advantages?Pets are great companions, but what about actual health benefits? Quite a bit has been written and scientifically studied on this subject. Many studies have shown that while we are taking care of our pets, they are also taking care of us. Sixty-three percent of households in the U.S. have a pet, making them more common in our homes than children. There are more than 74 million dogs, 91 million cats, 60 million birds, and 75 million small reptiles and mammals. Some feel that the recent increase in pet ownership is caused by society's unfulfilled need for intimacy, nurturance and contact with nature. Research over the past 25 years has consistently shown that living with pets is good for our health. How this happens, exactly, is subject to speculation. It is well documented that pets lead to a reduction in stress, and they usually lead to an increase in physical activity. Here are some of the scientific findings of the health status of pet owners vs. non-pet owners: •Decreased risk factors for cardiovascular disease, particularly lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides (male pet owners in particular have a lower risk of developing heart attacks) •Increased survival time following a heart attack •Lower anxiety levels, and all the associated health benefits •Enhanced levels of dopamine and endorphins, associated with happiness and well-being, and decreased levels of cortisol, known as "the stress hormone" •Fewer doctor visits per year, especially for minor health problems In bereaved elderly subjects with few social contacts, pet ownership and a strong attachment to them is associated with less depression. Recently widowed women who own pets experience significantly fewer symptoms of physical as well as psychological disease, and report lower medication use than widows who do not own pets. It is clear that walking a dog or just caring for a pet - for those who are able - can provide exercise and companionship. Alzheimer's disease patients, specifically, have been the subjects of numerous studies. Alzheimer's patients living at home with pets have fewer mood disorders and fewer episodes of aggression and anxiety than do non-pet owners. Their caregivers feel less burdened when there is a pet (particularly a cat, typically requiring less care than a dog). Those living in facilities show increased calm and improved social interactions when they receive visits from visiting service dogs. Studies have shown that patients' nutritional intake and weight increases significantly when fish aquariums are introduced into their dining areas. Family ownership of a pet has been linked with higher self-esteem in young children, as well as with a child's greater development in areas such as cognition, love, attachment, and comfort. In addition, children with pets at home score significantly higher on empathy and pro-social scales than non-pet owners. Contrary to popular belief, infants living with pets are not more likely to develop allergies, and allergy-prone families need not necessarily avoid pets. Indeed, a growing number of studies are suggesting that children with pets will actually have a lower risk of allergies, eczema, and asthma. In one study, if a dog lived in the home, infants were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies - 19% vs. 33%. They also are less likely to have eczema, a common skin condition that causes red patches and itching. In addition, they have higher levels of some immune system chemicals - a sign of stronger immune system activation. The thinking is that an infant's early exposure to animals and the associated dust and soil that may come with them can help to build a stronger immune system. There is new research that suggests that dogs may be able to detect certain types of cancer. While I am not suggesting that you replace your physician with the family pet, it does suggest just how empathic our pets may be. Dogs also help people with various disabilities, such as paralysis, vision or hearing impairments. Dogs have been shown to detect seizures and hypoglycemic attacks even before the person is aware of it. Man's best friend may help you make more human friends, too. Several studies have shown that walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps one to stay socially connected. While some in our society take illegal and dangerous drugs to raise their serotonin and dopamine levels, the company of their pet may do the very same thing - give them that boost in their neurotransmitters associated with a pleasurable and calming feeling. You might even note that Midland Life Insurance Company of Columbus, Ohio, asks clients over the age of 75 whether they have a pet as part of the medical screening. If the prospective client answers yes, it may tip the scales in their favor. Happy pet shopping!
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and current chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: June 26, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 10