The Benefits of Pets

In veterinary medicine, we focus so much of our time on keeping our pets healthy, we often forget that they help keep us healthy, too. Last week was National Public Health Week, so let’s talk about the benefits of pets, particularly when it comes to our own health.

 

Most pet owners don’t need to be reminded that our pets make us feel good. We know that our furry friends greeting us when we come home after a long day make us happier! But did you know that there’s scientific evidence that our pets make us healthier, too? From better heart health to lower stress and anxiety to reduced allergies in children, the number of known health benefits of pets is increasing rapidly. In fact, dog and cat owners have been shown to have a significantly higher chance of being alive one year after a major heart attack or stroke than non-pet owners, and their chances of having a heart attack or stroke at all are lower in comparison to non-pet owners. There are other ways our pets can help us maintain and improve our health, too.

A 1992 study reported by the American Diabetes Association showed that about one-third of pets living with diabetics changed their behavior significantly when their owner’s blood sugar dropped or rose dangerously. While many different kinds of pets display these kinds of behaviors (including cats and birds), dogs are the most consistent and the most easily trained to help diabetics manage their illness. Diabetic alert dogs are becoming more common and have been credited with reducing or eliminating their owners’ hospital visits and saving lives. These dogs are specially trained to recognize changes in their owners’ breath, so they stay by their sides at all times and alert them when it’s time to check their blood sugar.

Other dogs can be seizure alert dogs for epileptics. It isn’t possible to specifically train dogs to provide alerts for impending seizures, because it isn’t clear what the dogs are responding to – odor, imperceptible physical signals, etc. However, reports indicate that most service dogs are able to learn the signs of on-coming seizures in their owner within 6 months of being placed. Once they learn those signs, they can alert their owners who can then move to a safe place, tell family or friends, or take medication to either prevent the seizure or mitigate its effects.

 

Dogs are good for our emotional and mental health, as well. In fact, some mental health service dogs are trained to help their owners deal with the symptoms of PTSD, general or acute anxiety, or Tourette syndrome, to name a few. These dogs are often specially trained based on their owner’s needs and can do a wide variety of things. Some dogs will provide an anchor to the present, extinguishing flashbacks for PTSD sufferers. Other dogs will remind their owners to take their medications, while some can reduce overall stress and anxiety for their owners.

Emotional support dogs can do many of these things, as well, though they aren’t usually trained for specific tasks. Instead, emotional support dogs provide companionship for people with mood or depressive disorders or who have other conditions that can indirectly affect their emotional state (such as Multiple Sclerosis). They help their owners feel less isolated; they give them focus, structure and purpose, and they give dependable affection.

Dogs aren’t the only pets that can provide warnings and emotional support – cats have been found to have these abilities, too. But as most cat owners know, compelling a cat to work can be… difficult. Even though there are so many benefits of pets, dogs are still our best friends in good health.