The Power of a Pet
It is a scientific fact that pet companionship makes people happier. In addition to “turning a frown upside down”, pets also have the ability to make people healthier. Any type of pet can offer these benefits, but most clinical research about pets has involved dogs and to a lesser extent cats.
An apple a day may or may not keep the doctor away, but an animal a day is a different story. Dogs, as well as cats and other animal pets, make wonderful companions and promote scientifically proven emotional and physical benefits.
One mechanism of inducing less stress and anxiety involves the brain and central nervous system chemical called oxytocin, known as a “feel good hormone”. Other chemicals released when there is a strong relationship with a pet are called “happiness hormones”: endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. There are well known drugs used to elevate these hormones to relieve anxiety and depression in people with these emotional disturbances. Interestingly, our pet animals can have a similar benefit and effect.
Snuggling with a pet can certainly warm your heart, but also researchers at the American Heart Association have shown that having a pet dog reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 30%. Research has also shown that people with a pet dog or cat who experience a heart attack recover much quicker than those without a pet. Some of these benefits are thought to be due to decreased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and NIH (National Institutes of Health) have both conducted heart-related studies on people that have pets. Their findings show that pet owners exhibit decreased blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides, thus reducing the risk for stroke and heart attack.
A recent study of 2000 dog owners found they were less likely to develop obesity. This benefit was attributed to increased activity amongst dog owners who participated in long, frequent walks with their dog.
Physicians at the University of Wisconsin have conducted a number of studies that have demonstrated a surprising finding that having a pet in the home can lower a child’s likelihood of developing allergies by as much as 33%. They have also demonstrated that children exposed early in life to animals, tend to develop a stronger immune system overall.
Currently, many institutions such as hospitals, nursing homes, and academic centers are using Pet Assisted Therapy (PAT), to help people recover from or better cope with health problems such as chronic pain and other chronic diseases; patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy; patients with anxiety and depression; and various types of dementia including Alzheimer’s. The University of Miami uses PAT to help students deal with home-sickness or stress during exams.
As we grow older-especially after we retire-it can be difficult to find structure and meaning to life day in and day out. Dogs help take care of that. No matter your emotional or physical state, a dog provides unconditional love and dedication to help combat loneliness and isolation which is a key to staving off cognitive decline and disease. We tend to deflect focus from our own needs and problems to those of our pets.
If you are interested in pet ownership, a good place to start is the local County Humane Society. The volunteers who work at the facility are knowledgeable and dedicated to the animals and can provide invaluable advice about pet adoption. If you are not quite ready for pet ownership, consider becoming a volunteer. Frequent visits to the Humane Society as a volunteer will provide similar health benefits to pet ownership.
Dr. Tippett is the founder of Comprehensive Quality Healthcare Providers, a concierge internal medicine practice, located at 1210 Commerce Dr. Suite 106, Greensboro, Ga. 30642. He can be reached at 706-510-3695. Visit his website at www.drtippett.com