I on Beauty: Chapter 8 - Living Better with Pets

Irene and Taylor - Photo from Irene Michaels' Collection

I have been a pet owner my entire life. My pets are my children, friends, and most definitely my biggest fans. My life wouldn't be the same without them, and most likely, neither would my health.

There are very clear and immediate joys that come with owning a pet; they offer entertainment, companionship, and affection. Many people are not aware, however, of the numerous physical and mental benefits afforded by pet ownership. The American Heart Association has linked the ownership of pets, especially dogs, with greater longevity and a reduced risk for heart disease. Studies have repeatedly shown that pet owners less frequently suffer from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and stress. In addition to heart health, pet owners generally experience fewer or shorter bouts of depression and get more exercise compared to their pet-less peers. These all contribute to the startling statistic that pet owners over the age of 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.

The connection between pet ownership and better health isn't too difficult to understand. Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax. This can be of particular importance to those suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Research at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine has concluded that Alzheimer's patients suffer less stress and have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a pet in the home. Pets also provide a source of positive, nonverbal communication. Amazingly, some pets can even respond to changes in their owner's blood glucose level!

While most research focuses on the benefits of dog ownership, the owners of other pets are likely to experience health-related benefits as well. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and lower pulse rate.

In my own personal experience, pets are the best! Why? Because they bring joy and love into the home. When you hug a pet, or kiss a pet, or play with a pet, it moves something inside you. It gives me a sense of fulfillment and wellbeing. Even though my horse is 1,000 pounds, when I hug him around his tummy or stroke his mane and his long nose, I feel the innocence of childhood. Pure, wholesome, and full of love. I treasure that feeling. Sometimes as adults we yearn for that.

Regardless of whether it is raining or storming or in the middle of a harsh, Chicago ice storm, when I touch my horse, cat, dog or just watch my little fish, I enjoy a sensation of warmth that only comes from the pure love of caring for an animal. And they take care of me as well, by relieving some of my own anxieties and worries. While there is no magic bullet, you can be assured that owning an animal will give you purpose and enhance your longevity. I consider it a key component of aging well.

Photo credit: Andrew Ryback

The key to aging well is to effectively handle life's major changes, such as retirement, the loss of loved ones, and the physical changes of aging. Pets can play an important role in healthy aging by helping us stay connected with the community, creating a continued sense of purpose, and boosting vitality.

As one grows older, it can become difficult to maintain a robust social network. When illness, death, or relocation distances us from our friends and family, we are more likely to become complacent in bad habits and withdrawn from society. Caring for pets can actually change that as well. Walking dogs around a neighborhood or park or taking one's cat to the pet store or veterinarian prompts conversation and social engagement that stimulates the mood, promoting better emotional health.

Our emotional health is also reinforced by the sense of purpose we gain from being responsible for our pets. Particularly during divorce or when adult children move away and begin their own families, an unpleasant absence is felt in the home. The constant companionship offered by pets helps to alleviate some of the loneliness that accompanies such a significant change. Finally, as discussed before, pet ownership boosts vitality. Whether walking a dog or chasing a ferret, exercise almost always comes hand in hand with responsible pet parenthood.

When searching for a new dog or cat, it is always a good idea to visit your local shelter and meet the pets available for adoption. I suggest PAWS Chicago the city's largest No Kill humane organization, focused on solutions to end the killing of homeless pets.

Of course, adopting a pet requires great commitment. If you are concerned about the physical, emotional, or financial demands of pet ownership, you can receive many of the benefits by instead just spending time with the pets of friends, family, and neighbors.

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