Man’s Best Medicine

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Imagine a day at the park without man’s best friend, or a Sunday morning spent reading the paper without your furry feline companion curled up next to you on the couch. Life without animals would, no doubt, be unbearable for many of us, but it may also be detrimental to our health.

Pets provide so many health benefits to their companion people, and those benefits are now so well documented that we have virtually stopped questioning them. Researchers are studying the impact pets have on human health, particularly in comparison to individual drug therapies. And the overall verdict is in: Pets are good for us.

Of course, service animals have been improving the lives of people with special needs for decades. These highly trained companions do much more than most of us know and their service is to be commended. But the proven health benefits of living with an animal now extend well beyond this group.

Both pet ownership and pet therapy (regular contact with companion animals during health-care treatment) can lower blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol; improve lung function and the ability to cope with stressful events; and reduce the number of needed doctor visits and the amount of money spent on daily medication. In fact, pets can do some things for us that virtually no other therapy can achieve: increase physical activity after strokes or in people with paralysis; and reduce disruptive behavior and improve eating habits among those with Alzheimer’s disease, for example.

According to experts, pet owners have fewer minor health problems and better psychological well-being, and are in better physical health and get more exercise than non pet owners, on average. Owning a pet may actually extend the length of our lives. It’s been shown that interaction with animals can increase the survivability rates of both heart attack victims and people with coronary heart disease. The list of benefits goes on and on.

The Delta Society, a nonprofit organization that has been documenting the benefits of animal interaction on human health since the late 1970s, has become a repository for much of the scientific research conducted on the subject. For more information about current or past research, or a detailed review of pets’ contributions to human health, check their website at www.deltasociety.org.

Most of us don’t need a scientific study to know that pets are good for us. According to the most recent census data, more than one-third of all U.S. households include at least one pet. Sixteen percent of households have both a dog and a cat. And when household size reaches three or more people, pet ownership jumps to more than 50 percent. That’s a lot of wet noses! And it’s unlikely that most of those pets became part of a household just because someone needed to lower their blood pressure or increase their lung function. More likely, pets are in our homes because we love them. Or is it because they love us? Either way, pets enrich the tapestry of our lives in a thousand bold and subtle ways – which sounds like a pretty good “prescription” for better health.

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