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Can pets make us healthier?

Pets encourage physical activity. Brad Hinkleman walks his dog Buuren along with his co-workers from The Cheescake Factory in Annapolis at the 2nd annual SPCA Walk for the Animals at Quiet Waters Park.
Pets encourage physical activity. Brad Hinkleman walks his dog Buuren along with his co-workers from The Cheescake Factory in Annapolis at the 2nd annual SPCA Walk for the Animals at Quiet Waters Park. (By Joshua McKerrow Staff / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Q: Since this issue’s theme is health and wellness, I thought I’d ask and answer this month’s question: Can having pets make us healthier?

A: A resounding yes!

So many of us are feeling stressed these days, overwhelmed by the “convenience” of the never-ending flood of information offered by digital devices. Paying attention to a pet — whether we’re walking the dog, playing with the cat, admiring the beauty of tropical fish, listening to the warbling of a bird, or watching the cute activities of pocket pets like hamsters — can give us a much-needed break.
And the benefits are both physical and mental.
According to WebMD, pets can enhance our mood and health. Pets can be a key part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Walking a dog helps in multiple ways: We get exercise, we share quality time with our dogs and we’re more likely to connect with other humans, since dogs can be great conversational icebreakers.
Dog owners walk more and have lower blood pressure than people who don’t have dogs. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health looked at 421 adults who’d suffered heart attacks. A year later, the study found, dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
If you think petting a bunny, cat or dog makes you feel good, science backs you up — in addition to lowering blood pressure, pleasant interactions with pets can promote increased production of serotonin, an important chemical associated with well-being, and reduce levels of the potentially damaging stress hormone cortisol. It’s also good for our pets — recent studies show that petting causes Fido’s body to release the “hug hormone” oxytocin and make him feel better, too.
Living with pets may even boost the human immune system right from birth. Babies raised in families with pets may be less likely to get allergies and asthma, according to some studies. Infants with dogs or cats at home may actually have fewer colds and ear infections during their first year than babies living in pet-free homes. And children gain psychological comfort from having animal companions.
Pet ownership pays further dividends as we age. One NIH-funded investigation found that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog.
Another NIH-supported study followed more than 2,500 older adults, ages 71-82, for three years. Regular dog walkers were able to walk faster and longer than others, and older dog walkers also retained greater mobility inside their homes. And animal-related exercise — ranging from walking a dog to playing with a cat to horseback riding — can help fend off osteoporosis, since exercise strengthens bones. Pet owners also tend to be happier and less lonely, and they visit the doctor less often for minor problems.
Dr. Sandra Barker, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction, told Parade Magazine, “While our studies have primarily focused on human-canine interaction, others have found benefits from interacting with other species as well. I think the key may be less the species and more the attachment people develop with their pets.”
Over my four decades of veterinary practice, I’ve seen first-hand how pets can bring out the best in us. I’m thrilled that scientific studies are increasingly supporting what veterinarians and pet owners have long known to be true.  
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