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THERAPEUTIC BENEFITS OF ANIMALS

Meg Lukasa

 

 

Pets have long been considered an important part of the family.  In fact, more than half of all U.S. households have a pet, and many have multiple pets.  For many people, pets are a valuable source of love and friendship.  But is it possible that pets can actually make you healthier?

 

There have been increasing claims concerning the health benefits pets can provide.  The question is can we believe all the hype? 

 

 

What can your pet do for you?

How?

What evidence is offered?

What does the research say?

Conclusions

 

What can your pet do for you?

 

The most common claims include:

*      Decreased blood pressure

*      Decreased cholesterol levels

*      Decreased triglyceride levels

*      Decreased feelings of loneliness

*      Decrease stress and anxiety

*      Increased psychological wellbeing

*      Increased opportunities for exercise

*      Increased survival after a major illness

*      Increased opportunities for social interaction

 

How?

 

Most websites do not provide extensive explanations with the claims.  It seems to be implied that pets provide these benefits simply by being present in an owner’s life.  The daily activities and interactions like petting, playing, feeding, or walking all play a part.

What evidence is offered?

 

The Delta Society, a self-described “leading resource for the human-animal bond,” provides a large number of abstracts and articles, as well as an extensive bibliography as evidence to support their claims (www.deltasociety.org/dsc000.htm).  In The Delta Society’s Healthy Reasons to Have a Pet, all of the most common claims can be found with a referenced article.

 

What does the research say?

 

Do pets decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, or triglyceride levels?

 

According to Animals and Cardiovascular Health (Jennings 1995):

*      Pet owners had significantly lower systolic blood pressure

*      Pet owners had significantly lower plasma triglycerides

*      Male pet owners had significantly lower cholesterol levels

HOWEVER

*      Differences in plasma triglycerides and systolic blood pressure were “relatively modest,” averaging, in men, 12% and 2% respectively

*      These findings “do not prove that animal companionship per se lowers cardiovascular risk factors” (Jennings 1995).

 

Do pets decrease feelings of stress and anxiety?

 

According to Cardiovascular Reactivity and the Presence of Pets, Friends, and Spouses: The Truth About Cats and Dogs (Allen 2002):

*      Pet owners and nonowners had the same physiological response to stress when they were alone; this was the lowest physiological response to stress for the nonowners

*      Pet owners had the lowest physiological response to stress when their pets were present

 

Do pets decrease feelings of loneliness?

 

According to Loneliness and pet ownership among single women (Zasloff & Kidd 1994):

*      Women living entirely alone were more lonely than those living with either pets or other people

*      There were no significant differences in loneliness between pet owners and nonowners (In other words, there was not much difference between women living with just people and women living with just pets)

 

This study suggested that women living entirely alone could decrease loneliness by acquiring a pet, which, by their findings, would be similar to getting a roommate.  However, they also say that “no conclusions can be drawn about whether a pet actually produces less loneliness in women who live alone” (Zasloff & Kidd 1994, p.751).

 

Do pets increase psychological wellbeing?

 

According to Evidence for long term effects of pet ownership on human health (Serpell 1990):

*      Both dog and cat owners demonstrated improvements in psychological wellbeing after the first six months

HOWEVER

*      Only dog owners experienced these effects throughout the end of the ten month period

 

Do pets increase opportunities for exercise?

 

According to Evidence for long term effects of pet ownership on human health (Serpell 1990):

*      Dog owners experienced a “dramatic and sustained” increase in physical exercise as a result of walking their dogs

 

Do pets increase survival after a major illness?

 

According to Pet ownership, social support and one year survival among post-myocardial infarction patients in the cardiac arrhythmia suppression trial (Friedmann & Thomas 1995):

*      Dog owners are more likely to be alive one year after acute myocardial infarction than people who did not own dogs

HOWEVER

*      It could be possible that healthier people choose to own pets, particularly dogs

                    

Do pets increase opportunities for social interaction?

 

According to Dogs as catalysts for social interactions: robustness of effect (McNicholas 2000):

*      While walking a dog, people experience a greater frequency of social interactions, especially interactions with strangers, as compared to those walking alone

 

Conclusions

 

It appears that while the research findings are encouraging, much research is needed before we can draw any firm conclusions.  It would be quite beneficial for the studies to have much larger and more randomized participant groups.  It is also important to discover how these effects are occurring, if in fact they are.

 

So, if you are considering making a pet part of your family, or already have, it is possible that your pet can bring about positive health benefits.  However, think about it as an added perk… not a replacement for a healthy lifestyle.

 

 

Sources

www.deltasociety.org/dsc000.htm

 

Allen, K.M., Blascovich, J., Tomaka, J. & Kelsey, R.M. (1991).  Presence of human friends and pet dogs as moderators of autonomic responses to stress in women. Journal of Personality Psychology, 61, 582-589.

 

Friedmann,E. & Thomas, S.A. (1995).  Pet ownership, social support and one year survival among post-myocardial infarction patients in the cardiac arrhythmia suppression trial (CAST). American Journal of Cardiology 76:1213-1217.

Jennings, G.L. (1995).  Animals and Cardiovascular Health.  In Animals, Health and Quality of Life.  International Conference on Human-Animal Interactions, September 6-9, 1995.

McNicholas, J., Collis, G.M. (2000).  Dogs as Catalysts for Social Interactions: Robustness of the Effect. British Journal of Psychology 91 (pt.1), 61-71.

Serpel, J.A. (1990). Evidence for long term effects of pet ownership on human health.  In Pets, Benefits and Practice. Waltham Symposium 20, April 19, 1990.  Ed.: I.H. Burger, pp.1-7, BVA Publications.

 

Zasloff, R.L. & Kidd, A.H. (1994).  Loneliness and pet ownership among single women. Psychological Reports, October, 75(2), 747-52.

 

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