The Health Benefits of Furry Four-Legged Friends

Pets bring a special companionship and joy to the lives of their owners. But our furry, four-legged friends can offer even more boons, keeping us active and involved in the world and boosting our health.
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Look no further than that pup's nonstop wagging tail or revel in a kitten's soft rolling purr as it gets scratched behind its ears, and it's clear -- without the need for elaborate scientific evidence: pets bring a special companionship and joy to the lives of their owners. But our furry, four-legged friends can offer even more boons, keeping us active and involved in the world and boosting our health by bonding with and benefiting us, especially when we're sick, maybe in the hospital and don't even feel up to enjoying human company.

From autistic children to terminally ill cancer patients, pets can provide a calming presence when patients need it most. Their attention and affection can be downright therapeutic, some studies show, finding that having them around can lower blood pressure, slow heart rate, reduce depression and anxiety, decrease feelings of loneliness, and improve an individual's perceived quality of health. Therapy involving interaction between patients and a trained pet, along with its human owner, reduces the anxiety of patients hospitalized for mood or psychotic disorders, an American Psychiatric Association study found. Pet ownership improves survival after heart attacks and reduces the mortality rate from coronary heart disease, another study showed.

Alzheimer's patients, too, benefit from the presence of paws, with those with the disease and in institutions socializing better and displaying more serenity. Among Alzheimer's patients attached to an animal companion, studies have found a lessening of outbursts, lower anxiety and fewer mood disorders.

Seniors, of course, often adore their dogs and cats, and studies show their health benefits from companionship. While their peers without pets slowed down and moved less, animal owners ages 65 to 80 proved more physically active -- a key component in elder health, the American Psychological Association found in a study.

Therapeutic Pets

A number of hospitals have recognized the positive therapeutic effects that pets can have on patients and have developed programs that take advantage of these effects. For instance, in 1992, we initiated the P.O.O.C.H. (Pets Offer Ongoing Care and Healing) program. The volunteer pet-visitation program for patients seeks to provide comfort and solace by connecting animals with patients in our units for cardiology, HIV/AIDS, medical and surgical, pediatrics and rehabilitation, as well as the outpatient program at Cedars-Sinai's Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Center. Through this program a dog might stay with a patient anywhere from five minutes to an hour, bringing smiles, comfort and a welcomed diversion to the ailing. Thirty volunteers assist the program and many more are on a waiting list. One of our first canine "volunteers" who has since passed away, Margie, a Boston terrier-French bulldog mix, even was a cancer survivor herself.

Even if you're feeling well and not hospitalized, pets can potentially better your health, as there is increasing evidence that animal ownership provides measurable short-term psychological and physiological benefits, researchers in a Midwestern veterinary school say. They found that pets help their masters reduce their blood pressure and decrease other indicators of anxiety. Another study showed that dog and cat owners are less likely to need to see their physicians or to take heart or sleep medications.

Pets keep people moving and exercising, promoting overall health. Dog owners are 34 percent more likely to participate in the recommended minimum amount of exercise -- 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise -- each week, a study in a peer-reviewed journal found. And if you look at that on a grand scale, it can really add up.

Downside to Puppy Love?

Common sense, of course, should tag along with enthusiasm for any endeavor, including pets' roles in peoples' lives. Our best companions, after all, also can carry illnesses that they can spread to us because they share our quarters. These zoonotic diseases include Camplylobacter infection resulting in diarrhea, Toxoplasmosis (a parasitic infection that affects cats and can cause developmental issues in fetuses), rabies, tapeworms and brucellosis (a bacterial disease). Because of advances in hygiene and veterinary medicine in this country, many of these conditions are more common in other parts of the planet, though if your pet travels with you, the possibilities of zoonotic infection increase.

With vaccination, proper sanitary awareness and knowledge of preventative measures, animal owners can limit their risk of zoonotic infections from pets. And, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported recently, pet owners -- of course, please -- should be sensible and thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water after coming into contact with animal saliva or feces. There's little likelihood that any physician, parent or friend can or would want to curtail the hugs, and even kisses, that many owners (especially kids) lavish on their pets. But a word to the wise: your age or health status may affect your chances of contracting an illness from a pet. Those at higher risk include infants and children five or younger; others who should take extra care include organ transplant recipients and those with HIV/AIDS or under care for cancer.

Man's best friends earned their title for a reason. So if you're prone to anxiety, depression or loneliness, pet ownership may be an option to explore. Perhaps that old adage should be rephrased to: "A dog biscuit a day will keep the doctor away."

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