There has been growing interest in the last 10 years in studying the health benefits of pet interaction with humans. This interest is evident among researchers around the world. Health benefits of pets have been shown across the lifespan from childhood to older age. The setting can be the home, the school, a hospital or a long-term care facility. Research has largely centred on the health benefits of dogs and cats.
Companionship and reliable relationships. Pets are reliable as a presence around the home. They can help fill the void when there are no children in the home. They can enrich lives with their personalities.
Pets are more than just company. Pet owners form relationships with their pets that are similar, although less complex, to relationships with humans. Pets can be reliable, faithful and responsive (usually) to commands. Pet owners can relax with pets as there is no pressure to act a certain way. They accept their owner without judgement.
The bond with pets is subtle. Because pets cannot speak, owners look for cues in their behaviour such as a cat's arched back or a dog's wagging tail. This understanding of the body language of pets leads to better communication strengthening the bond between pets and owners.
Modern lifestyles can create loneliness and companion animals counteract this. Pet owners are less likely to feel lonely and 58 per cent of those who responded to an Australian survey said they met and made friends through their pets. Pets are also associated with traditional family life. They emphasize home, family and simple joys of childhood in a time when relationships were more valued than material possessions or mechanical gadgets.
About 59 per cent of American households have some kind of pet. There are more pets than children in America. The great increase in pet ownership may reflect a big city population's unsatisfied need for intimacy, nurture and contact with nature.
Pet owners are viewed as decent, animal-loving individuals whose homes are softer, more natural places because of the presence of a pet. Pets help to reduce stress by demanding the owners attend to the time-consuming routines of feeding, cleaning and exercising that help regulate and slow the pace of life. Time with a pet is a 'time-out.'
Improved physical health resulting in fewer visits to the doctor. Studies as far back as 1980 suggest the benefits of companion animals to humans. It was not clear, however, whether the pets influence a person's health or that perhaps, someone who is in better health has a pet. In 1990, Dr. Judith Siegel from the University of California examined a thousand patients, taking into account living conditions, chronic diseases and education level. She found people without pets averaged 9.49 visits to the doctor in one year while pet owners had 8.42 visits.
In 1992 in Australia, Dr. W. P. Anderson of the Baker Medical Research Institute in Melbourne studied 5,700 volunteer cardiac patients. The results showed pet owners, especially men, had lower blood pressure, lower levels of triglycerides and lower cholesterol than those without pets. Pet owners reported they took significantly more exercise than non-owners, and ate more meat and takeout food. The differences persisted even when researchers adjusted for smoking habits, diets, body mass index and income.
Another interesting aspect of Dr. Siegel's study was that pet owners spent an average of 1.4 hours outside each day with their dogs. Pets can motivate people to become more physically active which strengthens the heart muscle, improves blood circulation and slows the loss of bone tissue. The capacity of a dog to motivate a person to be more physically active may be one of the most important contributions pets make to human health.
Dr. S. Barker, a researcher at the Medical College of Virginia, put forth a theory that pets comfort the sick because of their ability to kindle emotion. Her patients on a psychiatric ward attended either a therapy recreation session or spent half an hour with a therapy dog. After each encounter, both groups completed questionnaires that measured scores for anxiety levels.
She found the presence of a dog reduced anxiety to levels the recreation sessions did not. Psychotic patients showed a two-fold drop in anxiety levels. Dr. Beck at Perdue University School of Veterinary Medicine in Indiana reported similar observations. Pets can soothe stress and relax people. About half of the nursing homes in Indiana have some kind of animal therapy programs.
Studies of health benefits of pet programs in long-term care settings suggest a benefit for at least some older people from animal visitation programs. The presence of animals seems to help them smile and talk more, show more alertness, and have greater well-being and less depression. Those in contact with animals react better to treatment, and have a greater will to recover and to live.
Animal programs in nursing homes help people to be more independent. A puppy does not care if a person is in a wheelchair or cannot walk. It just wants undivided affection and attention.
Pet programs provide more benefits in the way people respond than alternative therapies such as arts and crafts, friendly visitors, and conventional psychotherapy. Pet therapy has helped patients overcome withdrawal and detachment. Pets are being used to help the mentally handicapped and stroke victims recover their speech without being held back by self-consciousness.
A 1998 study at the University of British Columbia showed that pets can actually lower medical costs by shortening recovery times. A random sample of elderly people living in the community was selected. They were interviewed at the beginning of the study and one year later.
Pet owners used medical services 30 times compared to 37 times by non-pet owners. Overnight hospital stays were an average of eight days for pet owners and 13 days for non-pet owners. It appears that pet ownership helps elderly people cope with stressful events without using the health care system for support. A pet can help people cope with the loss of a leved one and adapt to changing circumstances.
Children love their pets and develop special comforting relationships with them. Studies have shown children with pets develop higher self-esteem and improved social skills. They learn about responsibility, gentle handling, animal behaviour and death. Pets can also act as security blankets, unquestioning confidantes and valuable companions for children. Children's relationships with pets are generally in addition to other relationships rather than a substitute. It is also important for children to learn to care about something other than themselves.
Other benefits of pet ownership. Pets have proved invaluable in a number of roles. Examples are guide dogs for the blind, 'hearing' and assistance dogs for disabled people and in horseback riding for those with physical and/or mental disabilities.
If you are thinking of getting a pet, consider the risks of infection and allergic reactions for you and your family. Before getting a pet, you should be familiar with the habits of the animal and the proper care needed, as well as the potential of the animal as a carrier of diseases.
This advice is not intended to discourage you from having a pet. Pets can enrich the lives of everyone around them but there is no doubt that you should use common sense with your animal.
In summary, compared to non-pet owners, people who have pets: