health benefits of owning a pet

Happy Pets, Healthy Guardians

Non-pet owners will never understand, but for the sake of their own health, maybe they should try.

A new Swedish study confirms numerous other studies that have demonstrated the health benefits of owning a pet. The study, published this month in the journal Scientific Reports, tracked more than 3.4 million middle-aged and older adults in Sweden for 12 years.

It found that dog owners who lived alone were 11 percent less likely to die of heart disease and 33 percent less likely to die of any cause than comparable non-dog owners. The study focused exclusively on dog ownership in Sweden, which may have skewed the results somewhat; in the country’s colder climate, guardians are forced to take their indoor animals out for daily walks, as opposed to letting them run free in their yards.

“We know that dog owners in general have a higher level of physical activity, which could be one explanation to the observed results,” said Tove Fall, an associate professor in epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, in discussing the findings.

The study authors also surmised that since dogs aren’t exactly sanitary, they bring in all kinds of outdoor dirt and germs, which positively impact humans’ “bacterial microbiome,” that is, the so-called “good” microbes that reside in the gut. Finally, a dog offers you more of a chance to interact with people during walks, thereby increasing your social contacts, which has been shown to reduce stress levels.

But what about cats? Another earlier study by the Minnesota Stroke Institute followed more than 4,000 cat owners for 10 years. It showed that those who kept cats significantly decreased the chance of dying from heart disease. Another found that cat owners had a decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attack.

Pet owners have been found to have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and lower triglycerides than non-pet owners, and to recover faster after surgery. Pets have been found to lessen anxiety and boost immunity.

And for children exposed to pet cats and dogs, or even farm animals, the health benefits include lower risk of allergies, asthma, and eczema. Adults benefit too, in many ways. Patients with AIDS are far less likely to be depressed if they have a pet. And those suffering from Alzheimer’s have been shown to have fewer outbursts of anxiety, agitation, and aggression if they have regular access to an animal. Patients with heart failure begin to walk sooner and farther when walking with a therapy dog.

As for mental health benefits, a 2002 study reported in Psychosomatic Medicine showed that having a pet in your life can reduce stress more effectively than confiding in your spouse or best friend. And less stress means a longer, healthier life on average. Other studies confirm the positive mental health benefits of owning an animal. While it is suspected that any kind of pet confers benefits, most research has focused on dogs and cats.

The studies and the list of benefits associated with having a pet are legion, but your concierge doctors in Jupiter, Florida, at MD 2.0 will not insist you obtain one if for any one of many reasons pet guardianship is not for you.

But you can find ways to incorporate domestic animals into your life. You can volunteer at an animal shelter, where there is a constant need for people to walk, play with, and help socialize the animals. You can offer to walk a friend’s dog. You can go horseback riding on the weekends. Any kind of interaction with animals can be beneficial.

If you have questions about whether owning a pet is medically right for your family, please contact us to discuss it.

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