Pets make us smile, laugh, and give us unconditional love, which must improve our health, right? Right! They do some other amazing things as well… Let’s take a look at how pets impact costly, chronic, health problems.
Cardiovascular Disease, Obesity, Hypertension, and Type 2 Diabetes
Many different types of pets can have health benefits including cats, snakes, and even goats! However, dogs are most likely to increase physical activity, thus reducing risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, and their numerous comorbid conditions. Specifically, studies have found that dogs impact physical activity by providing motivation to walk and companionship. One key element may be that dog owners “plan” to walk their dogs. The plan becomes a habit and ultimately creates a lifestyle change.
Anxiety, depression, and mental health effect
The relationship between pets and mental health is fascinating and complex. The impact of the human animal bond has been found to increase positive neurochemistry, for example, animals promote positive feelings by increasing the sense of stability, improving self-worth, and promoting adherence to a positive routine. They also appear to buffer against negative events, decreasing the physiological reaction they create (i.e., stress hormones). Furthermore, pets provide social support, reducing our sense of isolation, which in turn protects both physical and mental health. One study found that cat ownership was as effective in improving mood as a human partner. In addition, the benefits applied even within a group setting with animals effectively alleviating loneliness and isolation in elder-care facilities. I’ll take a lap blanket and a goat, please!
Learning disabilities and autism
Learning disabilities and autism, steadily on the rise, are challenging and multifaceted conditions. A wide range of interventions are typically used, and response to treatment is variable. While numerous tools exist, the conditions are still poorly understood. Treatment is often ongoing and tremendously expensive.
Including animals in this tool box of interventions may prove to be cost effective and efficacious. Petting an animal improves fine motor skills, promotes communication, and can be used to integrate sensory and motor coordination in a non-therapeutic setting. There is a positive relationship between pet ownership and empathy, with improvement shown in “offering to share”, and “offering comfort”, useful in the treatment of autism. Other areas of functional improvement include language skills, social interaction, decreased stress, and decreased problematic behaviors.
While examining the impact of dogs on autism, one study broadened the scope to include primary care givers, as these individuals were also theorized to benefit from pet ownership. Researchers concluded that “dogs provided a uniquely adaptable form of intervention for complex problems”, providing “flexibility and sensitivity to diverse needs”. In other words, dogs were able to adapt their supportive behavior according to different people, and to different needs. Astonishing really! (But of course, if you think about this, we see this type of behavioral change and adaptation in our own animals all the time).
Children are fascinated and motivated by animals. Studies indicate that Children who grow up with pets in the home a have higher self-esteem and greater task perseverance. Dogs have been proven to reduce blood pressure and anxiety in children when they are reading aloud. The cherry on top….a classroom dog improves the overall attitude of children regarding school.
Dogs have anatomical, physiological, and genetic traits that create an outstanding sense of smell. These characteristics allow dogs to sample and “cognitively process” a tremendous amount of information from their environment. The relationship between humans and dogs evolved, in part, because man wanted to take advantage of dog’s ability to hunt and track. Today, dogs continue to aid humans in odor detecting tasks. Interestingly, while hunting was a necessary activity for both man and dogs, modern dogs are now able to odor-detect on tasks that are entirely human-driven, for example detecting drugs or explosives. And cancer.
Dogs can smell cancer-specific chemical compounds, demonstrating early detection, and extremely high levels of sensitivity and specificity. Promising research is being conducted with colorectal, bladder, cervical, breast, lung, and melanoma type cancers.
So for young and for old, from heart disease to learning disabilities, pets are proving to be a low-tech, user-friendly solution to what ails us.