Pets are typically thought of as companions for people; sources of enjoyable interactions and fun diversions for humans. There now is increasing knowledge that besides being a source of amusement, pets are good for your health.

The most common health marker that has been studied in regard to interaction with pets is blood pressure. Petting a dog or cat or even watching fish swim in an aquarium results in a drop in blood pressure, likely due to the calming effects of stroking the pet or seeing the soothing swirls of fish motions in water.

The journal Circulation reported even more health marker improvements such as an association between pet ownership and lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also has reported that triglyceride levels as well as cholesterol levels are lower for pet owners. The CDC found longer life spans in humans who have pets. The Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial found that dog owners had only a 1% chance of dying within a year compared to 7% for those without a dog. Cat owners benefit too. A study in 2009 found that those who had owned a cat during any part of their life were 37% less likely to die of a heart attack than those who did not.

The discovery of these health effects has led to the inclusion of pet therapy in many nursing homes and hospitals with resultant therapeutic results. People with dementia in particular show less agitation and aggression when they can interact with a dog. It was thirty years ago that the National Institute of Health (NIH) conducted a workshop that concluded that pet therapy benefits exist for humans, especially for the elderly.

Mental health benefits can also be linked to pets. The NIH found that people recover quicker from a stressful situation when they are with their pets; in fact, even quicker than if they are with their partners or friends. Playing with a pet causes two feel-good chemicals named serotonin and dopamine to be increased in the brain. Also, because most dogs like a walk or two a day, humans are more likely to exercise by walking their dogs which leads to better physical and mental health. Cat owners feel soothed when their cat lies on their abdomen and purrs, and dog owners of both small and large breeds feel relaxed and content when their dog lies by their feet or nestles their furry body on top of their lap.

Besides wellness benefits, many pets, especially dogs, can be trained to assist with illnesses. Dogs have long been used as service dogs to help guide the visually impaired. Now dogs can be trained to use their keen sense of scent to detect the imminent onset of seizures in both children and adults and will bark when a seizure is ready to occur and only in this situation. There are many stories of dogs that have sniffed out cancers such as breast and ovarian and prostate cancer. These situations have occurred when family pets with no special training developed a noticeable change in behavior and began constantly pawing at the affected part of the human body, resulting in early diagnosis.

Because of the frequency of these cases ,some medical centers are training dogs by using actual body tissue with cancerous cells to teach the dogs to respond to these scents in a different fashion than other scents with the intention that dogs may soon be used as part of a diagnostic work up to detect cancer.
Though any pet needs care which takes some of our time, let’s thank them for how they are helping our health in such simple ways.

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Lisa Radville