Friday, February 23, 2018

A Friend for Health

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by Michelle Sutton-Kerchner

Many households own at least one pet. In addition to companionship and limitless love, these furry critters provide interesting health benefits …

Opening your home to a pet is a large undertaking, one that requires extensive consideration. The time and financial commitment is ongoing for many years. Short of adopting an animal on his/her “last leg,” you can expect a pet to be part of the family for many years. If considering this adventure in care and companionship, add improved health– yours– as one of the pros.

Exercise Opportunities

Canine friends, one of the most common pets, demand activity. Especially in puppy years, dogs need to burn off energy through frequent exercise. Their needs require them to go outdoors on occasion, which also gets their owners off the couch (sometimes out of bed) and heading for fresh air. Walking, ball tossing, and other doggie stunts require physical output from pets and their humans.

If looking for motivation to exercise, a dog is one of the best pets to own. A bunny or bird doesn’t require much movement on your part, unless they escape from their cage. In that case, any pet with the slightest Houdini skills can conjure up a workout for you.

Enjoy creative exercise opportunities.

The additional spurts of energy expelled during jaunts with a pet enhance your formal workouts. When weight loss goals plateau, adding 20 minutes of additional exercise during the day has proven to jumpstart a stalled loss. Having an active pet can require that extra output, revving metabolism and increasing stamina. You may find workouts are enhanced through a pet routine that involves regular activity.

Pets also offer a sense of belonging. For the shy or introverted, you are instantly part of an animal-loving community. Social by nature, dogs often need to greet passersby, especially those with other dogs. Think of them as a conversation starter with legs. You might be amazed at the friends introduced to you by your pooch.

Dog walking, which provides exercise and possible social interaction, may be the reason their owners have improved health over cat owners. Although any pet ownership showed a positive influence, dogs outweighed the perks of cats. Pet dogs’ ability to facilitate social connections and increase physical activity may enhance physiological and psychological human health more directly, according to research published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

Decrease the (Blood) Pressure

Where does one go to test the theory pets reduce stress and lower blood pressure? A group of New York City Stockbrokers, of course! A study assessed the effect of this form of social support in response to stress in 48 brokers being treated with medication for hypertension. Heart rate, blood pressure, and renin activity (an enzyme that increases with stress) were monitored. All participants’ pre-treatment blood pressure readings were higher than 140/90 hg/ml. Participants were non-smokers, without other health issues, who lived alone.

Half the group added a pet dog or cat to their regimen. Their cardiovascular measures remained significantly more stable during stressful situations. Tense times are precisely when hypertension medication cannot help. Medications mainly control blood pressure under normal circumstances. Evidently, pets don’t have this fair-weather-friend reaction. Even during tough times, a pet provides calming support.

Many from the pet-less half of the study proceeded to find their own furry friend. Without a pet in their lives, blood pressure, heart rate, and renin levels almost increased to pre-treatment levels during stress, even while on medication. Bring in Rover!

Much of the lowered blood pressure outcome can be attributed to a pet’s ability to reduce stress. Soothing snuggles, consistently cheerful greetings (even if you forget to bring out the trash), and playful activities make for a tension-reducing lifestyle. Don’t forget the increased exercise common for pet owners, which reduces stress and offers countless mind/body perks.

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center uses dogs to help soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans with pets are able to re-enter society more successfully. A pet decreases the threat of suicide in this population, which is one of the biggest health threats facing veterans. Beyond acting as a stress buster, pets offer love, companionship, and the ability to be needed– all without asking for the harsh details experienced during service time.

Lower Triglycerides and Cholesterol

According to the Centers for Disease Control pets can decrease these often troublesome blood levels. Some researchers found pet ownership lowers cholesterol by about five points. These heart-healthy contributions may be a result of the pet’s presence or the increased activity they bring. A pet’s unconditional love provides a sense of security and companionship when all else may be banished to the dog house.

Decrease risk of cardiac events.

Those at risk for cardiac disease may find a pet cat to be a lifesaver. Cat owners are 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack, and 40 percent less likely to suffer a cardiovascular incident like a stroke. Dogs have been known to assist their owner’s recovery from a serious illness, including heart attacks. Dog owners are eight times more likely to remain alive one year after having a heart attack than pet-less counterparts, according to Marty Becker, DVM, veterinary consultant and author.

Improve Other Chronic Health Issues

Dr. Becker believes pets can be the best medicine, especially when a person is dealing with chronic pain, such as migraines or arthritis. By reducing anxiety, which exacerbates pain, pet owners hurt less. Studies focused on acute pain found adults who used pet therapy required 50 percent less pain medication than those who did not.

Pets seem to connect on a level unreachable by most humans. Some epileptics are known to utilize dogs to help detect approaching seizures. Also, a study published in Diabetes Forecast, the American Diabetes Association’s magazine, found one-third of pets living with diabetics would change their behavior when their owner’s blood sugar level dropped. The pets included in the study were mostly dogs, but also included cats, rabbits, and birds.

Researchers attribute this perception to chemical changes in the owner’s body. The study inspired organizations like Dogs4Diabetics, whose motto is “Our Dogs Save Lives.” They train dogs to be companions of patients at risk for unstable blood glucose levels.

Expand your social circle.

Those suffering mild to moderate depression show improved mood through pet ownership. Taking care of a pet can help improve self-worth and increase social interaction. Indirectly, it also can help you take better care of yourself when this alone is a struggle. Being relied upon by another breathing being tends to reflect how much we truly can accomplish, in spite of our thoughts. And, simply petting animals is a soothing, repetitious act with meditative-like qualities.

The Motivation

Motivation to get in shape through pet ownership can begin even prior to acquiring a pet. Horse care can encompass all sorts of “circuit training.” If you really want a workout, consider getting a pet horse. Just be sure to accomplish some intense functional training first or you could be left out to pasture by this four-legged friend.

Often, there is the ultimate motivation: a child’s begging eyes. One study found pets dramatically improve immunity. Children ages five to seven years attended three weeks more school annually than their pet-less pals. The holidays are approaching, along with New Year’s Resolutions to live a healthier life. A new pet can be the quintessential Christmas present.


“10 Ways Owning a Pet Benefits Your Health,” by at

“Dog-Owner’s Lead Healthier Lives,”

“How Owning a Dog or Cat Can Reduce Stress,” by Elizabeth Scott at

“Pet Dog or Cat Controls Blood Pressure Better than ACE Inhibitor,” by Lois Baker at

“Pets for Depression and Health,” by Kathleen Doheny at

Image Credits

Dog run (introductory photo):

Biker dog:

Military dog:

Cat cuddle:

New friends:

Puppy present:

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