There are many reasons to believe that having pets can improve your health. The surprising thing is that there isn’t much scientific evidence to prove it. Although humans and animals have been companions for thousands of years, the bond that we share has only been studied for a short time. Physicians and other observers have noted the clear benefits that pets bring to people with illnesses, disabilities, and developmental issues, but there has yet to be a large, long-term study with a control group to show the actual rates of improvement.
Children are the first to take advantage of this connection. Some children, when asked who they talk to when upset, will answer that they go to their pets first. Those with autism have been helped immensely by animals. They are seen to be calmer, and will communicate with the animal, even when they have trouble interacting with humans. Hospitalized children have been reached by animals as well. Some with terminal illnesses will refuse to speak or move, but when they are visited by an assistance dog, they will speak or reach out to them. And it has been suggested that introducing kids to animals at a young age will lessen their chances of developing animal allergies.
Owning a pet also contributes to better health in adults. They have been shown to lower blood pressure, even in stressful situations. One study done by the National Institute of Health followed 421 people who had suffered heart attacks of differing levels of severity. After a year the survival rate was much higher for dog owners. Some animals are so in tune with such minor changes in our demeanor and actions that they can help predict when a seizure is imminent, alerting people so they can be prepared. These are in addition to the most recognized assistance animal: the seeing-eye dog.
Having a pet can also be a boon for intellectual stimulation. Taking your dog for a walk not only gets you more fresh air and exercise, but it creates opportunities for social interaction, which has been shown to decrease the chances of failing memory as one ages. Cuddling with animals can decrease anxiety, and improve someone’s mood. People with depression have also been shown to respond to the unconditional love that can only be given by pets.
Older adults who own dogs have been shown to be more mobile than those who don’t. Taking their pets out for walks regularly makes it easier for them to move around. Patients with Alzheimer’s can be soothed by the presence of pets.
We love animals for different reasons: from companionship, to having someone to care for, to their unconditional love for us. It would be great to have some tangible evidence that shows what we already know: they can also better our physical and mental health. The NIH is looking into a study on just such a thing, and several other researchers have expressed interest in exploring this mutually beneficial bond.
What do you think? Are animals just companions, someone furry to keep you company? Or do they help us so much that we should be able to claim them as a healthcare expense? I’m somewhere in the middle: I love pets, and I think they do more than some would give them credit for. But sometimes it seems like my cats are on a mission to raise my blood pressure, and they’re lucky they’re so cute, so I can’t stay mad at them. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the studies that are in the works, to see if we’re right about how much they benefit humans.
*Note: this article, though two years old, is very informative: