Owning a pet can improve your health | PostIndependent.com

Owning a pet can improve your health

Ron Carsten, DVM, Ph.D, CVA
Integrative Pet Vet

The holidays are a time for family and friends to share food, gifts and companionship. It is also a time to acknowledge the pets that are part of our families.

A growing body of scientific evidence supports the long-held belief that pet companions benefit human health. These health benefits include improved quality of life, better cardiovascular health, lowered risk of obesity, reduced stress and anxiety, and less depression. Nothing compares to the unconditional love that pets offer.

The number of pet dogs and cats in the U.S. has risen from an estimated 40 million in 1967 to more than 160 million in 2006. Approximately two-thirds of U.S. households own at least one pet.

Archeological evidence indicates that this relationship between humans and pets has existed for at least 12,000 years. These numbers tell a significant story about the human-animal bond. Research has shown that human-dog interactions create the same oxytocin feedback loop seen between mothers and their infants. While this oxytocin-fueled bond has contributed to the enduring relationship between humans and pets, pet companions offer many beneficial effects on humans. Recognition and understanding of these benefits continues to increase as more research is completed. It is important to note that dogs and cats are not the only pets that contribute health benefits through their companionship and interaction with humans.

Results of a recently released study by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute estimates that $11.7 billion is saved on U.S. health care annually as a result of pet companionship. The largest amount of saving comes from fewer physician visits by pet owners compared to non-pet owners. This equates to an estimated saving of $11.37 billion in health-care costs. In addition, dog owners that walk their dogs five or more times per week have a lower incidence of obesity, saving an estimated $419 million in health-care costs.

A study paid for by the National Institute of Health found that adults suffering from heart attacks, regardless of the severity, were more likely to be alive a year later if they owned a dog compared with those not owning a dog. In another study, married couples with pets were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure at rest and when undergoing stress tests. Interestingly, pet owners had milder reactions and recovered faster from stress when they were with their pets than when they were with their spouse or a friend.

Dog owners typically get more exercise, are less likely to be obese, and tend to walk further and faster than those who did not walk regularly. Elderly dog walkers tended to be more mobile in their homes. In addition, dog walking leads to increased conversation and social interaction with others. People with more social relationships generally live longer and have less physical and mental declines as they age.

Children also benefit from pet companionship. They generally have improved immunity, are less likely to have allergies, and have increased empathy for others. Also, children who are emotionally attached to their pets are better at building relationships with other people. From a therapeutic perspective, dogs can help calm hyperactive or overly aggressive children; of course supervision and proper training should be a component.

Animal-assisted therapy programs are becoming more widely available as the benefits of the human-animal bond are increasingly recognized. These programs have provided an important function for children in K-12 programs, college students, and for patients in hospitals and nursing homes. At-risk children, those in need of improvements in areas like self-confidence, self-esteem, motivation, empathy and behavior control have benefited. For individuals hospitalized or in nursing homes, animal-assisted therapy has improved patient moods and reduced anxiety.

As scientific investigation into the health benefits of pet companionship increases, new information will continue to emerge that further defines the essential role that these companions play in our daily lives. However, it is critical to understand that pet ownership is a long-term commitment that requires diligence, motivation and careful thought. Pets need fresh food and water daily, exercise, training, routine veterinary care and, as their lives progress, geriatric health care similar to humans.

In this season of sharing, take a moment to hug that pet that provides unconditional love. You will get back so much in return.

Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT, of Glenwood Springs was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He holds a doctor of veterinary medicine, a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology and is a certified veterinary acupuncturist and certified canine rehabilitation therapist.

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