Dr. Brett on the proven health benefits of pet ownership
By Brett Belchetz, M.D.
As pet owners, we all believe deep down on a visceral level, that having a dog, cat, bird, fish, or other pet in our home makes us feel better and healthier on a daily basis. The presence of a loving animal in our lives makes us smile more often, feel more socially connected, and forces us to be more active and spend more time outdoors. What most of us don’t know is that this isn’t just our lovingly biased perception talking. Numerous studies have actually confirmed the intuition of pet owners – that owning a pet has real, measurable, medically proven benefits for your health.
Here are six of my favorite, “doctor approved” health benefits your pet brings to your life:
Pets help sick patients live longer
A landmark University of Pennsylvania study followed a group of seriously ill heart patients over the course of a year. The death rate among those with no pets was 28% while the death rate among those with pets, stunningly, was only 6%. That’s a more than 75% reduction in the death rate among these patients!
Pets keep you active
The University of Victoria, in 2006, compared the activity levels of dog owners versus their peers without dogs. The dog owners walked on average 300 minutes per week versus their less fortunate, non-pet owning peers, who only walked only 168 minutes per week. That’s almost double the level of physical activity.
Dogs in the home can actually PREVENT allergies and eczema
Children who are regularly exposed to pets from infancy actually have lower rates of allergies than their peers with no pets in the home. This was shown by a study in 2011 in the Journal of Pediatrics of almost 700 children. Those with dogs in the home from birth demonstrated dramatically lower rates of eczema. Caution needs to be exercised, however, as pets are known triggers for those who have already developed asthma and allergies earlier in life.
Dogs can detect cancer
This particular talent needs more research, but in a groundbreaking study, a specially trained 8-year-old black Labrador correctly detected colorectal cancer in 33 out of 37 samples of people’s breath and stool that scientists had collected. That rivals the detection rates of some of medical science’s best screening tools!
Pets can lower our blood pressure, especially when we’re stressed
In an interesting study in 1999, researchers at the State University of New York studied 48 stockbrokers already taking a medication for hypertension. Half of the group obtained a pet and half did not, and their blood pressures were monitored. Impressively, the study found that those who obtained a pet reduced by half the increases in blood pressure that came with stress. When exposed to stress, those who had pets showed systolic blood pressures that rose from 120 to only 126, while those who had no pets exhibited a rise in blood pressure from 120 to 148 when exposed to stress, a huge difference. This is especially significant when taking into account that stress-induced increases in blood pressure have been implicated as a major cause of heart attacks.
Pets are proven lifesavers across many medical conditions
Across society, pets have proven their utility at helping patients cope with a variety of serious medical conditions. Seeing eye dogs help the blind navigate complex urban landscapes; specially trained “seizure dogs” can detect when an epileptic patient is about to have a seizure so that they can get into a safe position, and new studies suggest dogs can even be trained to detect when diabetic patients are suffering from low blood sugar. Research is ongoing across multiple other conditions to assess new, innovative ways pets can be used to help our most vulnerable citizens.
So next time your pet gazes at you with loving eyes, remember that the warm feeling that comes to you at these moments is not just in your head – it’s real and it’s already making you healthier!