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Pet boost: How furry pals improve health

Studies show that you’re more likely to survive a heart attack, go out and meet people, even live longer — if you have a dog or cat.

columns Updated: Nov 19, 2017 07:34 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
Pets,Dogs,Cats
Pet owners have higher self-esteem, are more physically fit, conscientious and extroverted, and less lonely, fearful or preoccupied, says the American Psychological Association.

Dogs exasperate when they chew your shoes or bark all night, but at all other times, they’re boosting your health. Data from 69 empirical research studies on human-animal interaction show that pets improve human social attention and behaviour, interpersonal interactions, mood, heart rate, blood pressure, fear and anxiety levels, mental and physical health and heart function, with findings on the benefits on immunity, pain management and aggression being inconsistent.

The intensity, duration and type of interaction determines the health outcomes, reported a multi-centric study from Europe published in the journal, Frontiers of Psychology.

Such studies have inherent biases, such as people owning a dog tend to be more active, social and in overall better health before they even take a pet home, but the findings are consistent in their conclusion that dogs keep both postmen and doctors away.

Heart disease

Those who own dogs are less likely to die of heart disease than people without pets, reported researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden on Friday, in the journal, Scientific Reports. The study of a database of 3.4 million people found that protection was greatest in persons living alone, with single dog owners having a 33% lower risk of death and 11% reduced risk of heart attack over a 12-year follow-up than single people with no pets.

The American Heart Association underlines the heart-protective qualities of pets, saying pet ownership modestly lowers unhealthy blood fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides and increases survival after heart attacks, but emphasises that people should not adopt a pet solely to reduce their risk of heart disease.

Anxiety

Pet owners have higher self-esteem, are more physically fit, conscientious and extroverted, and less lonely, fearful or preoccupied, says the American Psychological Association.

It also found that having a pet dog or cat in the house lowered social anxiety in children and made them more outgoing.

Previous studies have shown that living with dogs raised the levels of oxytocin (the feel-good hormone that increases bonding) and lowered the stress hormone cortisol to reduce the body’s stress response, bringing down anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate.

Along with increasing activity levels and improving physical health, walking the dog also brings social benefits of interacting with other people, which lowers depression and stress associated with loneliness.

Blood pressure

Petting or talking to a dog lowers blood pressure more than talking to another person, found a US study. Blood pressure was lowest during dog petting, higher while talking to the dog, and highest while talking to a person, while heart rates were lower while talking to or touching the dog and higher while both touching and talking to the dog. The scientists concluded that interacting through touch was key to the health boost, with cognitive factors contributing to a lesser degree.

Physical activity

Critics argue that healthier people are more likely to get a pet than someone who is sick, but there is clear evidence that those with dogs are more active than does who don’t have pets.

A large study of older adults in Japan found that those who have a pet dog are 1.5 times more likely to meet the recommended 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, reported a study in Human Kinetics.

Older people with pets have better functional fitness, such as the ability to climb stairs; bend, kneel, or stoop; take medicines regularly; cook, bathe and dress themselves, most likely because the role of caring for a pet gave them a sense of responsibility and purpose that added to their overall well-being.

Allergies

The jury is still out on whether pets – both cats and dogs – fuel or protect against allergies. Exposure to the microbes associated with pets in the first few months of life substantially lowers risk of allergies and asthma, an effect that lasts at least till age 18, but some studies have found that sensitisation to furry pets is a risk factor for new-onset asthma later in life.

The new understanding is that pet exposures consist of not only allergen exposures but also pet microbial exposures, so whether your pet triggers or protect you from allergies will depend on how your gut microbes reacts and adapt to the exposure.

Better recovery

Pet owners are less likely to die within one year of having a heart attack than those who do not have pets (1% versus 7%, respectively). Patients with dogs also visit doctors less often than similar patients without pets, but that could also be because pet owners have less time or are less fussy about their own health, especially if the ailment is minor.

First Published: Nov 18, 2017 19:51 IST