Not much makes your heart jump for joy more than your pet running up to meet you at the end of a long day's work. Pets add a lot of joy to our lives, and studies have shown that they can improve our health in many areas, making our hearts not only happy, but healthy.
Check out the following areas pets can provide health benefits:
Heart disease: Having a dog lowers the risk of heart disease. The main benefit appears to come from added exercise, since dog owners tend to get more exercise by walking their dog instead of sitting on the couch watching television.
Several studies have found that dog owners, especially men, have healthier cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
A Japanese study found that dog owners were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended amount of physical activity than non-dog owners, which helps keep cholesterol at healthy levels.
"Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with a decreased risk of heart disease," said Glenn N. Levine, M.D., after reviewing numerous studies of the influence of pets on health. The review was published in the American Heart Association's journal Heart.
In those who suffered heart attacks, a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that those who owned pets were significantly less likely to die within a year following their attack.
Blood pressure: Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo discovered that owning a dog or cat slashed blood pressure in response to stress. The volunteers were a group of stockbrokers — already in a high-stress profession — who were non-pet owners and were already taking medication for hypertension. Half of the volunteers were selected at random to add either a cat or dog to their treatment regimen, and the remaining non-pet owners served as a control. Tests showed that those who owned pets cut their increased response to stress in half.
Stress: Simply looking at your four-legged best friend can boost the release of oxytocin, the "cuddle" hormone, and decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol. One study found that people who had pets managed to keep blood pressure levels lower in times of stress than non-pet owners.
A study from the University of California at Los Angeles found that stressed people who didn't own pets visited their doctor 20 percent more often than those under stress who owned dogs.
Even coming into brief contact with a dog can reduce anxiety. One study found that patients who spent time with a dog shortly before an operation reduced anxiety by 37 percent.
Pets also reduce stress in children. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 12 percent of children with a dog at home tested positive for stress compared to 21 percent of children who didn't own dogs.
Doctor visits: A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that senior citizens who own pets, especially those who own dogs, have fewer doctor visits that those who don't have pets. In a year-long study, non-pet owners visited their doctors an average of 9.49 times a year, compared to pet owners who averaged 8.42 visits. Dog owners had the least number of doctor visits at an average of 8.2.
Chronic pain: A study published in Pain Medicine examined the effects of pets on patients while they waited for treatment at a pain management clinic, and found that patients who interacted with dogs had less pain and fatigue, and their mood was improved. Another study with fibromyalgia patients found that 12-minute visits with therapy dogs significantly improved pain compared to those who didn't get the therapy dog visits.
A study conducted at Loyola Medicine found that patients recovering from total joint replacement surgery needed 28 percent less pain medication if they received animal-assisted therapy.
Allergies: Several studies show that children raised in homes with pets have fewer allergies. The study, which was published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy, found that children who were exposed to pets before the age of six months had fewer allergy-related conditions such as asthma, hay fever, eczema, and upper respiratory infections as they grew older. Another study found that babies who lived in homes with pets had fewer colds and ear infections during their first year of life than babies living in homes without pets.
Depression. A study published in Anticancer Research found that patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer experienced a significant reduction in depression after participating in 20-minute sessions with a trained therapy dog when compared to patients who didn't get therapy.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, Americans own about 78.2 million dogs and 86.4 million cats.
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