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Prescription for Pets: 10 Ways Pets Boost Mental and Physical Health

Pets are good for your health - it’s that simple. They make us feel better. So are pets the new fountain of youth, the newest weight-loss craze or a health gimmick? Could pets be the newest vitamin, supplement or prescription to improve your health and your quality of life?

Most definitely. 

While often overlooked, the physical and mental benefits of owning a pet have actually been scientifically proven time and again.

And pets benefit people of all ages. They teach children responsibility and respect for life, and can be special confidants. The fastest growing pet population is with single professionals, young couples and empty nesters, all of whom have time and resources to spend on their pets and a desire for something to nurture and care for. 

However, senior citizens may be the biggest winners when it comes to reaping the rewards pets have to offer. Recent studies by the Journal of American Geriatrics Society documented that pets really do improve health and longevity of senior citizens. Luckily the same benefits of pet ownership for seniors translate into enhancements in health for all humans.

Here are ten ways pets boost mental and physical health - making pets the perfect medicine for your continued good health:

  1. Make you laugh. Laughter really is the best medicine… and who can suppress a giggle when watching the antics of a goofy puppy or a vivacious kitten? Pet owners and non-pet owners alike have been found to feel a general sense of support from animals and have been perceived to be happier and healthier in the presence of animals. Check out this video of Jesse the Jack Russell for a good laugh: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LgBKhj48VDY

  2. Lessen the chances of getting the common cold and even allergies.  Owning a dog may improve the health of children in that household, according to new research from the University of California, San Francisco. In a study of mice, researchers found that the house dust from homes with dogs worked to protect against a common cold strain, the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).  Animals fed house dust from dog-owning homes did not exhibit the usual symptoms of RSV, including mucus production and lung inflammation. In fact their symptoms were comparable to animals that weren’t exposed to the virus in the first place. RSV is a virus to which almost everybody has been exposed within the first few years of life and can be severe - sometimes fatal - in premature and chronically ill infants.  RSV is the leading cause of bronchiolitis as well as pneumonia in children under one year of age in the United States, and is associated with increased risk of developing asthma. Researchers believe this work may help explain why pet ownership has been associated with protection against childhood asthma in the past. Their thought process is as follows: exposure to animals early in life helps "train" the immune system, which plays an integral part in asthma development. In short, there is reason to believe that germs, such as those associated with dogs, may be good for children's health under certain circumstances.

  3. Reduce anxiety and stress. Researchers have found that interaction with pets, —even if they don't belong to you, can reduce anxiety, ease blood pressure and heart rate and offset feelings of depression. When you are stressed out, a dog may be an important coping mechanism, especially in times of crisis. A study out of the Medical College of Virginia found that for hospitalized patients with mental health issues, therapy with animals significantly reduced anxiety levels more than conventional recreational therapy sessions.

  4. Promote regular physical activity. While the most commonly asked question in homes with a new pet is “Who’s going to walk the dog?” it turns out that this responsibility may be just as important for the health of the family as well as the dog. Studies from the American Journal of Public Health and the American Journal of Preventive Medicine have shown that children with dogs spend more time doing moderate to vigorous activity than those without dogs, and adults with dogs walk on average almost twice as much as adults without dogs.

  5. Encourage cardiovascular health. Could owning a dog keep your heart healthy? In addition to better overall health because of walking the dog, research has supported a connection between dog ownership and reduced risk of cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels. In addition, a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that male dog owners were less likely to die within one year after a heart attack than those who did not own a dog. According to the Pets for the Elderly Foundation, in a clinical research project at Brooklyn College, New York, heart-disease patients were studied after their discharge from the hospital. They tracked each survivor, studying their medical histories, lifestyles, families, relationships - every documentable detail. Findings reported: "The presence of a pet was the strongest social predictor of survival...not just for lonely or depressed people, but everyone - independent of marital status and access to social support from human beings.”

  6. Ease depression and loneliness. Pets help to fight depression and loneliness, promoting an interest in life and helping pet owners to stick to a regular daily routine (Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship, Purdue University Press, 1996). Pet therapy is recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health as a type of psychotherapy for treating depression and other mood disorders. Being around pets appears to feed the soul, promoting a sense of emotional connectedness and overall wellbeing.

  7. Aid therapy and rehabilitation. Today, more than 50 percent of assisted living or nursing facilities have either residential animals or animal visitation programs as part of their recreation. Most programs use dogs, cats, and rabbits, and the most commonly reported value is improved social interaction of the patients. For people recovering from an injury or severe illness, or who require prolonged hospitalization, therapy dogs can be integral in the process of rehabilitation. A review of literature looking at the function of service dogs proved that dogs help people with various disabilities perform everyday activities, thereby significantly reducing their dependence on others.

  8. Fewer medical visits and lower costs. People with pets actually make fewer doctor visits, especially for non-serious medical conditions (National Institute of Health Technology Assessment Workshop: Health Benefits of Pets). According to research by The Delta Society, seniors that own a pet, had, on average, 15-20 percent lower health care costs and shorter hospital stays (8 days) than their non-pet owners counterparts (13 days).

  9. Promote social wellbeing. Pet owners always have a built-in listener, plus a great social facilitator. Caring for a pet means you are likely taking it places or going places to purchase food or supplies for the pet, putting you in contact with the public. Not only are pets great conversation starters and ice breakers, but, through their presence alone, they modify the social behavior between two or more people.

  10. Promote feelings of self-worth. People with pets have something to care for, someone depending on them day after day, giving them a sense of importance and feeling of being needed. Margaret Plevin, a 75 year-old widow from New York City said, “For an older person, pet ownership is no longer a responsibility, it's making life better by having someone depend on you just as you depend on them.” Most seniors no longer have family under their roof, and may even have lost a spouse, so with a pet, they're never alone. Pets really do provide a reason to stay engaged, stay active and are truly companions for life.

Whatever your age, has a pet improved your mental health, attitude or wellbeing? I’d love to hear your stories!

Kristen Levine, Pet Lifestyle Expert

Written by:
By Kristen Levine, Pet Lifestyle Expert

September 25, 2012

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