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Your Happy Pet: Health benefits of owning a pet

Original Publication Date: June 2, 2014
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Animal lovers thoroughly enjoy welcome-home tail wags and snuggles so freely offered by a pet.

His unconditional love benefits the owner's body, mind and spirit in ways you may not realize. The positive health effects a pet has on the human are amazing.

A furry friend can give his owner a happy heart as well as a healthy heart. The simple act of petting a dog or cat can markedly lower a person's blood pressure readings. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health has shown that people who have pets exhibit lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels in addition to decreased blood pressure readings.

This certainly minimizes but does not eliminate the risk of having a heart attack. Studies show that patients who do experience a heart attack have much better recovery rates and survival times if they own a dog or cat than non-pet owners.

The positive benefits of owning a companion animal continue to stack up.

For example, everyone encounters stressful situations in life. Once again pets come to the rescue. Researchers at State University of New York at Buffalo studied 240 married couples, half of whom owned a cat or dog.

The subjects had to perform the stressful tasks of solving difficult math problems in their heads and putting their hands in ice water for two minutes.

They had lower blood pressure and heart rates when their pets were with them than when a spouse, family member or close friend was present or they were alone.

The researchers noted that judgement and criticism from others is a major source of stress. Apparently it is difficult to match the nonjudgemental loyalty of a pet.

Touching your pet accentuates stress reduction. Your body releases oxytocin, a stress-reducing hormone associated with emotional bonding, when you pet your dog or cat. According to Froma Walsh, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, touching also causes your pet to release oxytocin fostering a sense of connection, calmness, and release of stress in both of you.

Your dog is a great personal trainer because you probably walk him several times a day. An NIH study of more than 2,000 adults found that a higher proportion of dog walkers met the national recommendations for minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity than those who did not walk their dog and non-dog owners.

The fact that only 17 percent of dog walkers were obese compared to 28 percent who didn't walk their dogs and 22 percent of non-owners led the researchers to conclude that dog walking may promote physical activity and contribute to weight control.

Walking a dog also keeps you from being a hermit and fosters relationships with others you meet on the way. Parminder Raina, PhD, headed a 1999 study that found pet owners tend to meet and interact with other dog owners making them more active and socially engaged than non-owners. The up side for singles is that a dog on a leash can be a fantastic date magnet.

So the next time your dog greets you with tail wags and snuggles, offer him pets and perhaps a special treat of thanks for all he does to boost your good health.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at