Studies prove that pets provide physical health benefits, offer stress relief and detect or predict health challenges. Some pets now are used prior to health tests like MRIs to reduce patient fear.
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Studies prove that pets provide physical health benefits, offer stress relief and detect or predict health challenges. Some pets now are used prior to health tests like MRIs to reduce patient fear. How can that be? Pets help keep us emotionally healthy.

They keep us connected to the world and other pet lovers, and offer a purpose to get out of bed in the morning. People who wouldn't go to the store for themselves will make the effort to get dog food or kitty litter.

Sure, walking the dog means people exercise, but studies also show that walking a dog offers more benefits than walking alone. There's a social and emotional benefit that has no equal.

Emotional Benefits Of Service Dogs

Service dogs have offered people assistance for many years as guides for the blind, ears for the deaf or even an extra pair of hands -- fetching everything from the phone and clothing, to turning lights on and off. While we mostly think of dogs, other critters including parrots, cats, lizards and even horses do this work. But service animals also boost emotional health in surprising ways.

Researcher Karen Allen conducted a two-year study looking at individuals with a variety of challenges who had used wheelchairs for a year or longer. She compared the group who received dogs to those who didn't. After a year, those with dogs showed dramatic improvement in areas such as self-esteem, psychological well-being and generally getting back into life. People were going out and having relationships, they made friends and a couple of people even got married.

This effect was also documented by researchers at the University of California Davis. They found people with pets were approached more often for conversation than when they were alone. Blind and wheelchair-bound kids with their dogs in public places were approached for social contact 10 times more frequently than without their dogs. Beside the day-to-day help service animals provide, they act as a social lubricant that emotionally heals.

When animals are present, Alzheimer patients are more responsive and more positive. But even healthy senior adults benefit emotionally from spending time with pets.

Pets Don't Judge

Healing includes the mending of broken hearts, lost dreams and painfully poisonous ideas and beliefs. Pets make things safe for emotions. You can express anything to your pet -- anger, sadness, joy, despair -- without being judged.

Humans suffering from trauma or illness, grief or depression, often withdraw from the world to find a safe and healing place. Kids who are lonely, dealing with death or illness in the family or other trauma have better coping skills when they have access to a pet. Families going through divorce also benefit from this pet effect. People caring for a pet are less likely to suffer from depression.

Psychiatric service dogs alert people when they need to take medication, eat on time or assure them the house and environment is safe and relieve their fears. And pets won't take no for an answer.

The Human-Animal Bond

The bond refers to feelings of love we have for pets -- and they for us -- and this biochemical process can actually be measured with blood tests. A study by South African professor Johannes Odendaal proved that the human-animal bond makes us feel good from the inside out. Pets feel it, too!

Our feelings, thoughts and attitudes are influenced by changes in brain chemistry. Odendaal measured blood levels and found that positive biochemicals phenylethalamine, dopamine, beta-endorphin, prolactin and oxytocin increased significantly for both the pets and people when bonding takes place.

People who interact with their own pets have even higher elevations. These chemicals stimulate feelings of elation, safety, tranquility, happiness, satisfaction and love -- it's more than simple contact, it's the individual animal and the bond we share.

Pets insist on being noticed, yet their presence is safe. They listen without judgment, and are silent without offering unasked advice. Animals know how to just sit and be with someone for as long as necessary. And pets don't turn away from tears and grief the way humans tend to do. Sometimes our beloved animal companions are the only bridge able to receive and return affection and show us the way home to emotional health.

Amy D. Shojai, CABC, is a certified animal behavior consultant and the award-winning author of 23 pet care books. She also writes for and and appears on Animal Planet's CATS-101 and DOGS-101. Check out Amy's latest book, "Pet Care in the New Century: Cutting-Edge Medicine for Dogs & Cats" and on Red Room, where you can read her blog.