For those of us who have pets, nobody needs to tell us there are health benefits to having a furry, feathered or scaly friend.
But the good news is, science agrees.
Pets offer companionship, loyalty, protection and unconditional love. Owning a pet may also reduce your risk of depression, anxiety, loneliness and stress.
A dog gets you off the couch several times a day for walks – a healthy habit. To get the benefit, however, you have to actually walk the dog. The walk not only burns calories, but may introduce you to new friends who share your interest. Finally, attending to the needs of a pet keeps you mentally sharp and adds structure and meaning to life.
The Stress Connection
Many of the benefits of having a pet are spinoffs from the effect of pets on emotional stress. A study published more than a decade ago found that the subjects were better able to manage a stressful situation when in the presence of their pets than in the presence of a spouse, family member or friend.
Another study found that pet owners experienced significantly less depression after the death of a spouse than people who didn’t have a pet. And those with a strong relationship with their pet had less depression than those with a weak owner/pet relationship.
Lower stress usually means better heart health. And pet owners have lower blood pressure, a better cholesterol profile and are more likely to survive a heart attack, according to studies. Within the first few months of acquiring a pet, according to one study, subjects showed a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, a reduction in every day health problems and less need for medical services.
One study found that heart attack patients who own a dog were more likely to be alive a year later compared to those who didn’t share their home with Rover.
Animal Assisted Therapy
For most of the above benefits, a cause/effect relationship is difficult to establish. It could be that individuals who follow a healthy lifestyle are also inclined to own a pet. It’s hard to argue, however, with the results of animal-assisted therapy.
For people with disabilities, guide dogs have a long-established role. More recently, hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation centers have been bringing animals into the treatment setting to interact with patients and meet physical and emotional needs.
Should you get a pet?
If you have a pet, you know the benefits. If you don’t, that doesn’t mean you should rush out and get one. A cat, dog, bird or fish requires a substantial commitment of time and energy. Be sure to weigh these options before committing.
What kind of pet?
If you decide yes, the next decision involves which kind of pet is best considering your health, activity level and lifestyle.
Birds and fish require less work than a dog or cat. Watching fish swim in an aquarium can be quite relaxing. And birds, whether they sing or talk, can be quite communicative.
The age and breeds are also crucial factors to consider. A small, energetic dog may require longer and more rapid walks than you are prepared to give. A big dog who is too energetic may pose a danger to a senior who is frail or has impaired mobility.
The joys of having a new puppy or kitten are many, but if you’re older than 60, you may want to skip the hassles of toilet training, biting, chewing and scratching. Adopting an older pet (6 or 7 years of age) might be more enjoyable. Your home may be the perfect place for an older pet – gentle, calm and already trained – looking for a caring home.
Get Involved with Your Pet
Volunteer handler-animal teams make regularly scheduled visits to the pediatric, psychiatric and medical rehabilitation units at a number of Providence hospitals. To learn more, follow the links below.