We are often urged to do various tasks for the sake of our health, some more complicated and expensive than others. However, one of the healthiest things we can do is simple, traditional and pleasant - we can care for a pet.
People have enjoyed the companionship of animals for thousands of years, and it's common knowledge that having a dog encourages you to go for healthy walks. Recently, though, research scientists have been trying to discover if there are actual, measurable health benefits associated with pet ownership, and how these benefits come about.
These researchers have found that pets are not only valuable for maintaining our well-being, but they can alleviate specific health problems.
Lowering stress levels
Stroking a pet or simply watching aquarium fish helps us to relax. Even just being with a pet has a soothing effect. The relaxation we feel can be measured as a slower heartbeat and a drop in blood pressure.
Research has shown that this reduction is particularly noticeable in people who suffer from high-blood pressure. The reduction in blood pressure from pet ownership is the same as you would get by changing to a low salt diet or by cutting down on alcohol.
Pet ownership can also help reduce the risk of asthma, and it can help us cope with the death of a life partner.
When American researcher Erika Friedmann studied heart attack sufferers, she found that pet owners were more likely to survive heart attacks than non-pet owners. As both cat and dog owners and owners of other pets showed better survival rates, the difference could not be attributed to the extra exercise that dog owners take. However, people who live alone or are depressed are less likely to survive after a heart attack, so the presence of a pet may provide support simply through companionship.
Keeping elderly people active
In a Canadian study involving over 1,000 people, Dr Parminda Raina found that elderly people with pets were more able to cope with daily activities than those without. He also found that older pet owners had lower health care costs than non-owners.
Another research project discovered that a group of elderly people in residential homes who were given budgerigars, coped better with other aspects of the aging process.
Children who have pets tend to be more self-reliant, more sociable and less selfish than children without pets. In a German study, 90% of parents thought that their dog played an educative role with their young children, and improved the child's quality of life. 80% of the children interviewed considered their dog to be primarily their friend and confidante.
Adolescents, too, can benefit. A study of young people from large cities found those with dogs to be more content with life, with a more positive relationship with adults. There could be an important role for dogs in the prevention of delinquency, therapy for the young unemployed and others, such as drug addicts.
At Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London, weekly visits from pets helped children overcome the depression brought on by lengthy hospitalization and unpleasant clinical treatments.
The presence of a dog in a class of children with severe learning difficulties markedly sustained their interest and attention.
A pet can act as a social lubricant. Walking in the park or visiting the vet provide opportunities to meet and talk to other people. Studies have shown that people walking a dog have far more positive encounters than those out walking alone. A pet can be an ice-breaker, a topic of conversation.
Owning a pet also means having to make an effort to get out, buy food and provide exercise. The routine, sense of purpose and feeling of fulfillment in caring for a pet gives meaning to the lives of many isolated people, and helps fight off depression and loneliness.