Much More Than Just Kisses

Does having a goldfish confer the same health benefits as having a golden retriever? Most pet studies were of people who had a dog or a cat, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the health benefits of birds, lizards, fish and other pets. How much time the person spends with his or her pet could be strongly influenced by the type of pet and in turn could influence the health benefits of having a pet.

Animals play an important role in many people’s lives. In addition to seeing-eye dogs and dogs trained to detect seizures, animals can also be used in occupational therapy, speech therapy, or physical rehabilitation to help patients recover. Aside from these designated therapeutic roles, animals are also valued as companions, which can certainly affect the quality of our lives. But is that companionship beneficial to our health?

The better we understand the human-animal bond, the more we can use it to improve people’s lives. Here is some of what is known and not known about how animals help improve the health and well-being of people, and what the implications might be for helping people who don’t have pets of their own.

One study found that having a dog lowered blood pressure better than taking a popular type of blood pressure medication. Other research has indicated that the simple act of stroking a pet can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Children’s exposure to companion animals may also ease anxiety. When a dog was present, children had lower blood pressure measures, lower heart rates, and less behavioral distress. However, research on the health benefits of child and animal interaction is still limited. Social support from friends and family can have benefits, but interpersonal relationships often cause stress as well, whereas pets are less likely to cause stress. The social support provided by a pet might also encourage more social interactions with people, reducing feelings of isolation and certainly can ease loneliness. Even walking with a dog has been found to increase social interaction, especially with strangers, compared to walking without a dog.

In one study, elderly dog or cat owners were better able to perform certain physical activities deemed “activities of daily living,” such as the ability to climb stairs; bend, kneel, or stoop; take medication; prepare meals; and bathe and dress oneself. Companion animals did not seem to have an impact on psychological health but researchers suggested that a care-taking role may give older individuals a sense of responsibility and purpose that contributes to their overall well-being.

One large German study collected pet information (dog, cat, horse, fish, bird or other pet ownership) from over 9,000 people at two different times years apart. The survey included a number of health, economic, and labor issues, so that respondents would not realize the researchers’ interest in a link between pets and health. Researchers found that people who said they had a pet in both time frames had the fewest doctor visits, the group of people who did not have a pet at either time had the highest number of doctor visits.

As is true with any relationship, some human-pet relationships are likely to be more rewarding than others. Some people are more attached to their pets than others and those feelings could influence the impact of the pet on the person’s health. So, while pet ownership might have a positive impact on well-being for some people, it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. But when a child has no brothers or sisters, research shows that pets help children develop greater empathy, higher self-esteem, and increased participation in social and physical activities. The effect of human-animal interaction on health is not fully understood because it is difficult to study. Most evidence on the benefits of having a pet, comes from surveys of current health, but that means it is impossible to know if a person is in good health because she has a pet or if he is more likely to get a pet because he is in good health. Someone whose health is poor may decide he does not have the time or energy to care for a pet. The German study described above suggests that having a pet for a longer period of time is more beneficial to your health; but it is also possible that people with pets have less time to spare to go to the doctor or are less concerned about their own health, especially minor ailments.

We don’t yet know precisely what types of animals influence what types of health issues (physical, mental, and social well-being) and what characteristics about human-animal interaction are most important. People who have pets know that there are many benefits to having a companion animal, but we do not yet know under what circumstances those benefits are most likely. If research shows specific health benefits under specific circumstances, that information can be used to change policies in ways that benefit even more adults and children, by influencing rules and regulations for schools, health or assisted living facilities, residential treatment centers, and other places where people’s exposure to animals is limited but could potentially be eased. The research findings are encouraging, so it makes sense to conduct more studies on how human-animal interaction influences our health.

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