Thursday, April 2, 2015

Is Your Pet Making You Healthy?

     What pet owner hasn't experienced the genuine unconditional love of a dog or the comfort from a cat's purr? We know how our furry friends cheer us up, but can they actually improve our health?

     According to the American Pet Products Association, over 72 million households have a pet in America. That is 62% of the population! No wonder tests are being done around the world on the the effects of animals on humans. Of course, not everyone is affected the same way, but research gives a good indicator of how the majority of people are affected.

     Studies show that pet owners visit the doctor less than non-pet owners. Perhaps this is because of the stress reduction that pets provide their owners. Blair Justice, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, found that spending time with a furry animal elevates levels of serotonin and dopamine which give people a feeling of pleasure. Healthier hearts, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and stronger immune systems are just a few of the health benefits researchers have discovered with pet owners. The University of Minnesota's Stroke Institute monitored almost 4,500 participants over 10 years, and found that the cat owners had 30% less risk of dying from a heart attack. Over 20 years, that statistic rose to 40%!

     Personally, I don't need a study to tell me that those living alone will feel less lonesome with a companion animal around the house. A study reported in the Journal of Social Psychology did prove that single women who owned a dog had lower rates of depression.  Dogs, in particular, have been shown to increase social engagement with other people. Walking a dog in a public place and spending time at dog parks get owner's out of the house where they meet other dog owners. In nursing homes, residents with pets or visiting pets also socialize more with other residents.  New York psychologist Penny B. Donnenfeld, adds, "Having a pet helps the senior focus on something other than physical problems and negative preoccupations about loss or aging."

     Many studies show that children with pets have an improvement in self-esteem, empathy, allergies, and even asthma. Children with ADD are found to be able to focus better with a pet around. Positive results are being compiled in studies on the interaction of autistic children with dogs, horses and guinea pigs. The animals usually calm the children as they learn about sensory stimulation. One mother speaks of her son's special service dog, "I have watched irritability and transition problems melt away as my son and other children pet him, sit next to him, and lie on him."

     On a side note, most problems with animals and children involves lack of supervision. When looking for a canine companion for your children, dog breed is less of a factor than training both dog and children to play well together. Some cats and dogs are more permissible than others in being picked up and hugged. Be sure to pick a cat that tolerates little children's love pats rather than just picking out a pretty cat.

     So, the animals themselves have a healthy effect on us. What about a photo or a video of an animal?  A study by Loma Linda University discovered that cortisol levels decline, which means we feel less stressed, while watching funny animal videos. A recent study in Japan found that looking at cute animal faces helps people to slow down, focus and perform difficult tasks more accurately. That sounds like a great reason hang animal posters around your workplace.  I urge you to do your own study. Look through a gallery of animal photos and notice how you feel. Calm. Yep, me too!

For more information, read a few of the pages from which I derived my research:

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