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15 Health Benefits of Owning a Pet

Research Increasingly Suggests Pets Boost Our Quality of Life

My tortoiseshell tabby cat nudges the laptop, eyes my cup of steaming black coffee and settles on a nearby cushion. I scratch her head and rhythmic purrs fill the room. Her quiet company and unconditional love help me work, but they might also be lengthening my life. A growing body of evidence points to the human-pet connection as a possible source of health benefits for all ages, especially seniors. Check out these 15 ways your pet could be improving your quality of life.

By Marcia Swearingen

Health Boosters

Research over the last 25 years has shown that pet ownership has been linked to many physical health benefits for older Americans including…

1. Lower Blood Pressure

If you’re prone to hypertension, don’t give up your meds, but seriously consider adopting a dog or cat. Studies have shown that patients with pets often register lower blood pressure under stress than people without pets.

2. Lower Cholesterol & Triglyceride Levels

Even when up against people of similar weight and smoking habits, studies show that pet owners still best non-pet owners with lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.

3. Lower Risk of Heart Disease

According to Dr. Marty Becker, veterinary consultant for Good Morning America, cat owners are 30 percent less likely to experience a heart attack and 40 percent less prone to suffer a stroke than their petless friends.

4. Boosted Immune System

Pets can be hilarious. Their contagious playfulness often provokes laughter, exercise, and increased energy, all of which boost your immune system.

Calming Agents

In a 2002 survey of pet owners by the American Animal Hospital Association, 76 percent of the respondents said pets reduced stress in their lives and 65 percent felt their animals improved their mental health. Common mental and emotional benefits of pet ownership include…

5. Stress Relief

Even watching a real fish in a home aquarium can lower the stress hormone cortisol and elevate the production of serotonin, a brain chemical linked to well-being.

6. Mood Lift

According to Dr. Blair Justice, author of Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health, playing with a dog can increase production of the calming neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Simply petting a pet can also have a calming effect and ease loneliness.

7. Pain Distraction

Believe it or not, pets have even been compared to Valium in their ability to minimize the chronic pain of arthritis and migraines. A Loyola University study found that patients using pet therapy after surgery required less pain medication than those who did not.

8. A Listening Ear

Emotional therapy comes in many forms. Journaling helps some people debrief. Others prefer a listening ear. Though not a substitute for interpersonal relationships, adoring pets will listen as long as you want to talk. Plus, they never betray a confidence. (Okay, it’s a bit of a stretch, but don’t knock it till you try it.)

Good Influences

Pets can help you follow through on all those resolutions to make healthy life changes. Caring for an animal forces you to do for another what you might not do for yourself, and you reap the benefits, such as…

9. Discipline

For seniors, retirement usually means changes. You may no longer get up and go to work every day. Your children may have moved away from home. Sometimes it’s hard to stay upbeat and motivated. Getting up to walk and feed the dog adds structure to the day, gets your mind off your problems, and makes you feel appreciated and needed.

10. Regular Exercise

For those with osteoporosis, walking is a great weight-bearing exercise to strengthen bones. A National Institute of Health study of 2,500 seniors ages 71 to 82 found that those who walked their dogs regularly walked faster and longer each week than those who didn’t walk regularly. Because of this, they also had more mobility inside the home.

11. Volunteering

Take your pet with you on a visit to the hospital or a nursing facility. He or she will get the chance to be the center of attention, and you just might find yourself blessed.

Networking Avenues

Countless studies have shown that the more social relationships people have, the longer they live and the less likely they are to exhibit the physical and mental effects of aging. Pets are natural networkers, and in simply being who they are, they can give you an easy way to connect with others.

12. Social Interaction

Maybe because they are so social themselves, it’s not surprising that pets make great social engineers. Take Fido for a walk and watch what happens. Dogs can’t resist getting to know the neighbors and their kids and their pets. Before long, you’ll know them too.

13. Dating Opportunities

As your pet introduces you to a larger world, you never know what might happen.

Earnest Friends

If you need an ice breaker at any gathering, be sure to ask about pets. The bonds between humans and animals go so deep almost everyone has a story to get the party started.

14. Unconditional Love

A 2002 study at State University of New York at Buffalo revealed that people performing a stressful task experienced less stress in the company of their pets than when they were with a spouse, other family members or friends. And of course, pets make you feel like a celebrity when you come home, even if you’ve only been gone 30 minutes.

15. Faithful Companionship

Have you ever noticed that cats and dogs will remain at your side when you are sick? That loyalty is an asset that has been used to help people live comfortably in their homes. Dogs can be trained to pick up dropped items, open and close doors, help a person with balance and turn on lights. At the end of the day, your pet may be just the medicine you need. Love your pets for what they are and enjoy the added health benefits along the way.
Marcia Swearingen has lived in Chattanooga for 32 years. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and currently facilitates a Christian writing group for the Chattanooga Writers Guild. Marcia and her husband, Jim, have a grown daughter and live in Hixson.

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