Bust Stress

Adopt a Pet for a Healthier Home and Family

by Beth Oleson

Pets are great.  They’re fun, and funny.  They’re cute right when you need a cute moment the most (and if you happen to have a camera handy, they’ll carry you to internet fame).  They keep life interesting.  But we shouldn’t just focus on warm, fuzzy feelings when we talk about how great our pets are, because they’re also great for our health in so many ways.   Here are my top five personal favorites.

web dogPets are allergy busters.  Kids who grow up with cats and dogs in the house are up to 33% less likely to develop allergies and asthma, according to a study by James Gern, an allergy and immunology researcher at the University of Wisconsin. That’s because young kids’ immune systems are still developing; their bodies will be better prepared to handle germs and potential allergens down the road if they get acquainted with them early on. In other words, let your kids play in the dirt and snuggle with a pet – because not only did Gern’s study find that pets reduce allergies and asthma, it also showed that they developed stronger immune systems across the board.

Pets make you happy.  We’re not just talking about generic, “Oh, I’m so happy to see you, Fido!” happy here – spending time with your pets actually changes your brain chemistry to make you a happier, less-stressed individual.  Studies have shown that petting a dog or cat raises a person’s serotonin and dopamine levels (aka, happy juice for your brain), and lowers cortisol levels (aka, the much less popular stress juice).  Know what else has that effect on your brain? Heroin. Pets are a much healthier alternative, although you may still become addicted. In all seriousness, stress reduction is a really important thing, and pets are pros at it.  Studies have found that people with pets have lower blood pressure, lower anxiety, and are better able to cope with depression.  Alzheimers patients with pets have lower incidences of anxious outbursts.  And, for those times when you can’t just cuddle the stress away, the American Journal of Cardiology reports that pet owners are better at adapting to stressful situations.

Pets are good for your heart.  Multiple studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Health, among others, have compared risk factors and recovery for heart problems between people who own pets and people who don’t, and pet owners – especially cat owners – did better across the board.  Pet owners have lower cholesterol.  They have lower incidence of heart disease, strokes, and heart attacks.  And following a heart attack, pet owners recover more quickly and live longer.  My dad had heart surgery in 2014, and I know he got a lot of comfort from my parents’ two feline friends in the weeks that followed; next time I see them, I’ll whisper a quick “thank you” for helping with the recovery process.

Pets keep you active.  Cats won on the heart health front, and dogs win on the active lifestyle front.  The minimum recommended physical activity a day is a 30 minute walk; since I adopted a dog a few years back, I’ve found that I spend at least twice that amount of time walking around the neighborhood, in the woods, or at the park. That little bit of physical activity doesn’t seem like much, but it makes a huge difference in your overall health – your circulatory system, your bones, and your muscles will all thank you for it.  It’s worth mentioning here that a more active lifestyle may contribute to some of the other health benefits attributed to pets, including cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and heart health; but the studies cited here all point to pets making a significant impact beyond their role in just getting you up and moving.  Especially cats, who don’t get you up and moving so much as they keep you sedentary by constantly curling up on your lap at the exact moment you were about to get up.

Pets keep you independent.  Dogs are the big winners in this category, too.  Independence is something a lot of us – myself included – often take for granted. But for many people, including the elderly and people with disabilities, independent living may not be a given. A service animal can be the difference between remaining independent and at home, and depending on family or professional help, or moving to an assisted living facility.  Service dogs can do amazing things; they can sense drops in blood sugar and on-coming seizures, navigate busy sidewalks and streets, find fire exits and elevators, carry medications, retrieve dropped objects, fetch a walker or a wheelchair, even bring you the phone, tidy the house, and unload groceries (and so much more)…all while being loving companions.

I’ll say it again: Pets are great.

For those you who have pets at home, I hope this makes you love them even more.  Our dogs and cats do so much for us, and they never ask for much in return —just a safe, warm home, a little love, and some food in their bowl (a little more food please…little more…ok, that’s good).  For those of you who don’t have pets at home, but are now seriously considering the health benefits, go spend some time at a shelter or rescue this week.  5-7 million pets enter adoption centers in the United States every year, and believe me when I say they need you just as much as you need them.  Your heart will thank you, in more ways than one.

This article is on page 8 of the January 2015 Health and Wellness edition of the Hamburg Journal.