Can Your Pet Improve Your Health?
The palliative care unit at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City is not generally a cheery place. But moods lift when Spirit, a trained therapy dog, arrives. "Spirit knows what to do to make people feel better," says the pooch's owner, Linda Koebner. "Suddenly everyone is more engaged and relaxed."
Help Your Heart
Pets don't just steal your heartthey can actually strengthen it. Owning a dog, for example, makes a daily walk non-negotiable, and petting an animal can lower heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, says Sandra Barker, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that people who suffered a heart attack were much more likely to be alive a year later if they were dog owners.
Studies have also shown that simply watching fish swim in an aquarium can lower blood pressure. And if you have diabetes, note that certain dog breeds, such as Labrador retrievers, can be trained to detect subtle changes in your breath or body odor that occur when blood sugar dips. In some cases, these dogs can sense a coming drop in blood sugar sooner than a glucose meter.
Boost Your Mood
People with depression tend to cut themselves off from others, exacerbating loneliness. Walking a dog forces you to get outside (and get a serotonin boost from exercise) and allows for low-stress socializing with other animal lovers. Also, research shows that employees who bring their dogs to work are less stressed.
For those in the hospital or another institutional setting, petting animals offers the comfort of touch. And nursing homes often have aquariums or birds for residents to watch and enjoy.
Animals may even aid the doctor-patient relationship. When Robin Kerner, Ph.D., a psychologist at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, brings Magic, a standard poodle, to group therapy sessions, "Patients find me more human and less intimidating," she says.
Make Life Better for Your Kids
Owning pets teaches children about responsibility and empathy, but kids with disabilities can benefit in other ways, too. One recent study found that children with autism show improved social skills when a pet is introduced into their home at around age five; other research indicates animals can reduce aggression in children with aggressive tendencies. Growing up with a pet from infancy may even prevent the development of allergies.
Can't own a pet? Local shelters often need volunteers to play with animals.