There's nothing like a curious cat or devoted dog to welcome us home after a challenging day. Pets amuse use with their antics, comfort us with cuddles, and surprise us with their smarts. But companionship and entertainment are not the only benefits of pet ownership. Pets, especially our feline and canine compadres, are actually good for our health! These are just a few of the benefits of life with one or more four legged friends:
- Outdoor exercise. Walking the dog is a daily opportunity to stretch your legs, get some fresh air and sunshine and burn some calories. One study found that 60% of dog owners met the federal standards for moderate or vigorous exercise just by walking their dogs.
- Lower cholesterol. Keeping your cholesterol at a healthy level takes regular exercise, limiting sugar, alcohol, salt, and saturated fats, and a daily statin if your doctor prescribes one. Your pooch can also help. While scientists are not sure why, research has shown that dog owners have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Reduced stress. Petting a cat or dog is soothing for human and animal alike. It’s been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. One study measured cortisol levels in college students before and after playing with dogs and cats. After just 10 minutes of hands-on play, students experienced a significant drop in cortisol levels.
- More stable blood pressure. Some studies indicate that compared to people without pets, dog owners have less "cardiovascular reactivity" – increases in heart rate and blood pressure when experiencing stress.
- A healthier heart. Research has demonstrated the long-term benefits pet ownership can have for your heart. One 20-year study found people who owned a cat were 40% less likely to die of a heart attack than those without a cat. A different study found that one year after a heart attack, dog owners had a significantly better survival rate compared to pet-less heart attack victims. Overall, pet owners have a lower risk of dying from any cardiac disease, including heart failure.
- Reduced stroke risk. Owning a cat appears to reduce stroke risk by a third, likely because of the positive effects a pet can have on stress, blood pressure, and heart health. While this particular study only looked at cat owners, it’s likely dogs have the same effect.
- Blood glucose monitoring. A sudden drop in blood glucose can be dangerous for people with diabetes. Some dogs recognize changes in a person’s scent when blood sugar starts dropping and warn their human of impending hypoglycemia. This gives the dog owner time to eat a snack an get their blood sugar back up. While not all dogs will do this spontaneously, working dogs can be specially trained to sense a drop in blood sugar. You can learn more at Diabetic Alert Dogs of America.
- Arthritis management. Arthritis sufferers need regular exercise, even if it's hard to get started at first. Having a dog provides a regular walk schedule that can help manage arthritis in both humans and their aging pets.
- Positive mood. Pets are mood elevators. Their owners tend to be generally happier and less lonely than those who don’t have pets. The National Institute of Mental Health recognizes animal-assisted therapy as an adjunct treatment for depression and other mood disorders.
- Allergy prevention. A seven-year study of almost 500 children found that early exposure to dogs and cats reduced a baby's risk of eventually developing allergies and risk factors for asthma by 50%. Infants with more than one pet in the home had the lowest risk of allergies. (Of course, if someone in the home is already allergic to pet dander, adding a dog or cat to the household is ill-advised.)
- ADHD, autism, and learning differences in children. One study found that dogs can help children with ADHD focus their attention. 12 group therapy sessions were held for two groups of children diagnosed with ADHD. One group read to a therapy dog once a week for 30 minutes. The second group read to a dog puppet. The kids who read to actual animals demonstrated better social skills and had fewer behavioral problems. Another study found that children with autism spectrum disorder were less anxious while playing with guinea pigs in the classroom and did better with social interactions.
Service Dogs vs. Therapy Dogs
People often confuse Service Dogs with Therapy Dogs, but they are not the same. A Service, or Assistance Dog, is trained to help a person with a specific physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or mental disability. These dogs are specially trained to perform specific tasks for their assigned individual. Such tasks might include:
- Guiding blind or visually impaired people
- Alerting people who are deaf or hard of hearing to sounds such as a crying baby, doorbell, or fire alarm
- Assisting a wheelchair-bound individual
- Alerting a person who is about to have a seizure and protecting them during the seizure
- Serving as a brace to help people with balance and stability issues handle stairs or transition from seated to standing positions
- Reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications (the dog nudges their handler or brings them the medication bag)
- Interrupting impulsive or destructive behavior in people with neurological or psychiatric issues
- Calming anxiety attacks in people with PTSD and/or waking them from nightmares
Therapy dogs, sometimes called comfort dogs, are selected for their mellow, affectionate natures. Their purpose is to just be themselves and let people cuddle and play with them. Therapy dogs can comfort patients with a wide range of issues, such as ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, depression, post-traumatic disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and Alzheimer's disease. But this isn't just your neighbor's super friendly dog – therapy dogs must be trained and tested and certified before they can be allowed to visit hospitals, libraries, schools, courtrooms, and other facilities.
To support patients' emotional health, El Camino Health's Mountain View Campus welcomes volunteers affiliated with Therapy Dogs International and their animal friends to visit patients at our Mountain View campus. Dogs meet rigorous standards for obedience and are comfortable interacting with people in a hospital setting.
To arrange a visit by a therapy dog, call our Patient Experience team at 650-962-5836.
This article first appeared in the August 2023 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.