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Pet power: 10 ways animals help health

| May 19, 2020 1:00 AM

Don’t tell Karma — who, like all cats, thinks she’s the bee’s knees, but the truest friend among feline kind was Sasha. (No disrespect, Cameron fans, to Sammie The World’s Greatest.)

As a young woman I had a condition with chronic pain. Somehow Sasha always knew. Without prompting she invariably cuddled close, ever so gently avoiding the painful area, until I felt better.

That kind of compassion isn’t the only benefit of the pets gracing an estimated 68 percent of American households. Beyond easing loneliness, scientific studies funded or reported by the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control suggest pets help decrease stress and lessen pain, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, improve heart health, help children develop life skills, and much more.

A mere piddle (hey, they can’t help it) in the ocean of pet benefits, here are 10 ways relationships with pets can make life better:

1. Longevity

The 2017 study “Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death” followed 3.4 million Swedish dog owners for 12 years. The researchers found that single-person householders with a dog were 33 percent less likely to die and 36 percent less likely to have cardiovascular disease. Another 2019 review (of nearly 70 years of research) published in the journal Circulation found that dog ownership generally lowers the risk of death from any cause by 24 percent.

2. Better immunity, less stress

While those with allergies to pet dander can really suffer, having pets in early childhood may actually help. A 2018 Danish study published in the Journal of Allery and Clinical Immunology followed nearly 400 children from birth to 12 years and found that newborns who live with cats actually have a lower risk of asthma, pneumonia and bronchitis, as well as fewer pet allergies later on.

A 2016 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found Amish and Hutterite farm children are less likely to have asthma, due to exposure to certain beneficial bacteria in livestock.

Later in life, even petting a pooch can help boost the immune system and reduce harmful stress. The 2004 study “Effect of Petting a Dog on Immune System Function” compared college students who petted a real dog for 18 minutes with those who petted a stuffed dog or simply sat quietly. The dog-petters’ blood had increased immunoglobulin levels (an immune defense).

Modern frenetic lifestyles seem to create more stress than ever, which increases the risk of all kinds of health problems. Too many studies to list indicate regular contact with pets can counteract that by lowering stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) and heart rate, which increase calm feelings.

3. Heart health

There’s a double meaning here, as pets so readily shower us with love. Studies reported by the American Heart Association concluded dog owners have a lower risk of developing heart disease, as well as decreased risks for patients who already have it (Levine et. al. 2020).

Not to diss cats. A 10-year study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found cat owners were also 30 percent less likely than non-cat owners to have a heart attack, and 40 percent less likely to die from one.

4. Making friends

Four-legged friends can make people more approachable. In a 1988 study in the Journal of Psychology, people in wheelchairs who had a dog experienced more smiles and conversations with passersby than did those without one.

That’s good news for single guys: In one study (Guéguen and Ciccotti 2008) the same man got more women’s phone numbers when he had a dog (28 percent) compared to attempts without the cute pooch (9 percent).

5. Dementia, healing

Pets must be a special comfort to people suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, if the increasing number of pet therapy programs in assisted living and hospitals are anything to go by. Canine caregivers can be trained to assist at-home dementia patients with fetching medication, reminders to eat and guiding them home if they’ve wandered. Many assisted-living facilities now have resident pets or offer therapy animal visits to support and stimulate patients.

Some hospitals, including Kootenai Health, have trained pet therapists who visit patients during their stay. Studies have linked creature companions with improving behavioral issues, better healing outcomes, and just making people feel better.

6. Autism

According to the CDC one in 54 American kids are on the autism spectrum, a developmental condition that can make it more challenging to communicate and interact socially. Animals, who have less complicated social expectations than people, can help. A 2015 Purdue study found children with ASD talked and laughed more, cried less and were more social with peers when guinea pigs were around.

ASD animal-assisted therapy programs have recently grown, featuring everything from dogs and dolphins to alpacas and chickens.

7. Depression

I found multiple studies, the most recent in Australia (Powell et. al. 2019), which unsurprisingly found having a pet eases loneliness.

Pet therapy is well recognized by the National Institute of Mental Health. A 2018 review of 17 studies in the journal BMC Psychiatry found evidence that animals can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and long-term mental health conditions.

8. PTSD

Since our veteran son got his specially trained pooch, he says he feels happier and less troubled by his demons. People haunted by effects of combat, personal assault and other traumas are particularly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The above-cited review and other studies have shown the boost of oxytocin (a neuropeptide released when experiencing affection) pets provide can alleviate the flashbacks and feelings of numbness, sadness and anger associated with PTSD.

9. Cancer

Pets and animal-assisted therapy may help cancer patients heal emotionally and physically. Preliminary findings of a multi-year clinical trial by the American Humane Association indicate therapy dogs not only erase loneliness, depression and stress in kids fighting cancer, but also motivate them to eat and better follow treatment recommendations.

10. Pain

Millions of Americans live with chronic pain, which apparently animals can soothe by helping them relax and stimulating feel-good chemicals. In one study (Marcus et. al. 2012), 34 percent of fibromyalgia patients reported pain relief, better mood and less fatigue after spending 10 minutes with a therapy dog, compared to only 4 percent of patients who didn’t. In another study (Havey 2015), joint replacement surgery patients who had daily pet visits needed 28 percent less pain medication than those without animal contact.

Sasha and Sammie know all about that.

May is National Pet Month. Owning a pet is a big responsibility, and not every pet is right for every household. Animals need care, can get stressed just like people, and are often misunderstood. Consider this advice from the CDC at Bit.ly/3dXCNci.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Share pet stories at Sholeh@cdapress.com.