5 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health


This week on Web MD, there is an informative article by Jeanie Lerche Davis how pets can improve your health. Here’s a summary:

Allergy Fighters

A growing number of studies suggest that kids growing up in a home with “furred animals” — whether it’s a pet cat or dog, or on a farm and exposed to large animals — will have less risk of allergies and asthma, according to James E. Gern, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Gern analyzed the blood of babies immediately after birth and then again one year later. He was looking for evidence of an allergic reaction, immunity changes, and for reactions to bacteria in the environment.

If a dog lived in the home, infants were less likely to show evidence of pet allergies — 19% vs. 33%. They also were less likely to have eczema, a common allergy skin condition that causes red patches and itching. In addition, they had higher levels of some immune system chemicals — a sign of stronger immune system activation.

“Dogs are dirty animals, and this suggests that babies who have greater exposure to dirt and allergens have a stronger immune system,” Gern says.

On a personal and unscientific note, my own experience bears this out. When my husband and I were first dating, he claimed to be allergic to cats. But he was so in love with me that he toughed it out. Within two or three months, he no longer suffered from cat allergies and his other allergies had improved as well. Which is good because I really liked him and wanted him to stick around.

Date Magnets

Pets are great for making love connections. Forget Internet matchmaking — a pet is a natural conversation starter.

This especially helps ease people out of social isolation or shyness, according to Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta.

“People ask about breed, they watch the dog’s tricks,” Kaslow says. “Sometimes the conversation stays at the ‘dog level,’ sometimes it becomes a real social interchange.”

If you’ve been following the series on “Cat Guys” in the Cat’s Meow, you know that cat lovin’ women are drawn to Cat Guys like supermagnets. The women I’ve talked to feel that men who love cats are more sensitive and compassionate than the average guy.

Elder Care Benefits

“Studies have shown that Alzheimer’s patients have fewer anxious outbursts if there is an animal in the home,” says Lynette Hart, PhD, associate professor at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Their caregivers also feel less burdened when there is a pet, particularly if it is a cat, which generally requires less care than a dog,” says Hart.

For elderly people who are ambulatory, walking a dog or caring for a cat can provide exercise and companionship, even provide a “reason to live.” Midland Life Insurance Company of Columbus, Ohio, asks clients over age 75 if they have a pet as part of their medical screening — which often helps tip the scales in their favor.

Increasingly, rest homes and assisted care facilities are encouraging pet visits through Animal Assisted Therapy programs. Such programs make a significant difference in the emotional health of residents, especially since most have to surrender their cherished pets before moving into elder care facilities. If you have a mellow pet, consider volunteering — contact your local SPCA or shelter to find a program in your area.

Good for Mind and Soul

We think a purring cat can help anyone sleep better.

Pet owners with AIDS are far less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. “The benefit is especially pronounced when people are strongly attached to their pets,” says researcher Judith Siegel, PhD.

In one study, stockbrokers with high blood pressure who adopted a cat or dog had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations than did people without pets.

People in stress mode get into a “state of dis-ease,” in which harmful chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine can negatively affect the immune system, says Blair Justice, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health and author of Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health.

Studies show a link between these chemicals and plaque buildup in arteries, the red flag for heart disease, said Justice.

Like any enjoyable activity, playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine — nerve transmitters that are known to have pleasurable and calming properties, he told WebMD.

“People take drugs like heroin and cocaine to raise serotonin and dopamine, but the healthy way to do it is to pet your dog, or hug your spouse, watch sunsets, or get around something beautiful in nature,” says Justice, who recently hiked the Colorado Rockies with his wife and two dogs.

Good for the Heart

Heart attack patients who have pets survive longer than those without, according to several studies. Male pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels — than non-owners, researchers say.

Fred, the Therapy Cat, working at a children’s Christmas party.

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