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Your Happy Pet: The healing power of pets

Original Publication Date: February 24, 2014
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Coming home to the anxious greeting, happy wagging tail and unconditional love of your dog can put you in a happy mood, no matter how tiring your day.

Interacting with your furry friend can do much more than raise your spirits, according to scientific studies that applaud the health benefits of living with a pet.

Unfortunately, computers, TV, video games and other electronic devices have led too many of us down the path of a sedentary lifestyle. Pets encourage physical activity.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a daily walk can lead to a healthier life. Take a walk with your dog. One walk will cause it to expect more. Try to tell your pet "no" when it expects another outing. Soon, you will have daily walks as a part of a healthy routine for both of you.

Pets also encourage social interaction. Being with your pet can be a great conversation starter. My Irish wolfhounds usually illicit comments like, "I've never seen such a big dog." "Does he have a saddle?" or "How much does he eat?"

The questions do not matter. They open the door to conversations that can lead to a new friendship. Some people have found their dog to be a date magnet.

Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami worked with a group of grandparents who received massages for a month then massaged pets for a month. As the trial progressed, the grandparents experienced less anxiety and depression, had decreased levels of stress hormones, made fewer visits to the doctor, drank fewer cups of coffee and demonstrated improved self-esteem.

Interestingly, the effects seemed to be greater following the month massaging pets than the month receiving massages. Perhaps there is something to the old adage, "It is better to give than to receive."

The power of touch is often underrated - especially in regard to interactions between a person and a pet. Stanley Coren, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, believes that touch establishes love and comfort. While it is good to spill your troubles to your ever-attentive pet, you will experience greater health benefits if you reach out and touch it.

Research shows that people who pet dogs experience a rise in immunoglobulin A, an antibody that boosts the immune system. Petting animals also boosts oxytonin, the hormone that promotes love and trust, and it reduces blood pressure and heart rate.

The benefits of touch are not limited to petting furry friends. According to a study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, stroking a pet snake brought down the blood pressure and heart rate of the owner.

The next time you stroke your pet - whether furry, feathered or scaly - it will show his appreciation for the attention. Don't forget to thank it for all the health benefits it is giving you.

Petting your friend is great medicine.

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