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How pets can affect mood and health
While most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals, many remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that can also accompany the pleasure of playing with or snuggling up to a furry friend. It's only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond. Studies have found that:
- Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.
- People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets.
- Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
- Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
- Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
- A pet doesn't have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and pulse rate.
One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is that most pets fulfill the basic human need to touch. Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with pets, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time. Stroking, holding, cuddling, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe us when we're stressed. The companionship of a pet can also ease loneliness, and some pets are a great stimulus for healthy exercise, which can substantially boost mood.
How pets can help to make healthy lifestyle changes
Adopting healthy lifestyle changes can play an important role in easing symptoms of depression, stress, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety. Caring for a pet can help with those healthy lifestyle changes by:
Pets and older adults
- Increasing exercise. Exercise doesn't have
to involve boring repetition at a gym. Taking a dog for a walk,
riding a horse, or simply chasing a kitten around are fun ways
to fit healthy daily exercise into your schedule.
- Providing companionship. Isolation and loneliness
can make disorders such as depression even worse. Caring for a
living animal can help make you feel needed and wanted, and take
the focus away from your problems. Most pet owners talk to their
pets, some even use them to work through their troubles.
- Helping meet new people. Pets can be a great
social lubricant for their owners. Dog owners frequently stop
and talk to each other on walks or in a dog park. Pet owners also
meet new people in pet stores, clubs, and training classes.
- Reducing anxiety. The companionship of a dog
can offer comfort, help ease anxiety, and build self-confidence
for people anxious about going out into the world.
- Adding structure and routine to your day.
Many pets, especially dogs, require a regular feeding and exercise
schedule. No matter your mood-depressed, anxious, or stressed-you'll
always have to get out of bed to feed, exercise, and care for
- Providing sensory stress relief. Touch and
movement are two healthy ways to quickly manage stress. This could
involve petting a cat or taking a dog for a walk.
The key to aging well is to effectively handle life's major changes, such as retirement, the loss of loved ones, and the physical changes of aging. Pets can play an important role in healthy aging by:
Pets and adults with Alzheimer's disease or dementia
- Helping you find meaning and joy in life.
As you age, you'll lose things that previously occupied your time
and gave your life purpose. You may retire from your career or
your children may move far away. Caring for a pet can bring pleasure
and help boost your morale and optimism. Taking care of an animal
can also provide a sense of self-worth.
- Staying connected. Maintaining a social network
isn't always easy as you grow older. Retirement, illness, death,
and moves can take away close friends and family members. And
making new friends can get harder. Dogs especially are a great
way for seniors to spark up conversations and meet new people.
- Boosting vitality. You can overcome many of
the physical challenges associated with aging by taking good care
of yourself. Pets encourage playfulness, laughter, and exercise,
which can help boost your immune system and increase your energy.
As part of the disease, Alzheimer's patients may exhibit a wide variety of behavioral problems, many related to an inability to deal with stress.
Pets and children
- Research at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine concluded that Alzheimer's patients suffer less stress and have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a pet in the home.
- Pets can provide a source of positive, nonverbal communication. The playful interaction and gentle touch from a well-trained, docile animal can help soothe an Alzheimer's patient and decrease aggressive behavior.
- In many cases a patient's problem behavior is a reaction to the stressed response of the primary caretaker. Pets can help ease the stress of caregivers. Cats or caged animals may be more suitable than dogs, which generally require more care and can add to the burden of someone who's already looking after an Alzheimer's patient.
Not only do children who grow up with pets have less risk of allergies and asthma, many also learn responsibility, compassion, and empathy from having pets. Unlike parents, pets are never critical and don't give orders. They are always loving and their mere presence at home can help provide a sense of security in children. Having an ever-present dog or cat, for example, can help ease separation anxiety in children when mom and dad aren't around. Studies have also shown that pets can help calm hyperactive or overly aggressive kids. Of course, both the pet and the child need to be trained to behave appropriately with each other.
Children and adults alike can benefit from playing with pets, which can be both a source of calmness and relaxation, as well as a source of stimulation for the brain and body. Playing with a pet can even be a doorway to learning for a child. It can stimulate a child's imagination and curiosity. The rewards of training a dog to perform a new trick, for example, can teach kids the importance of perseverance. Caring for a furry friend can also offer another benefit to a child: immense joy.
Children with learning and other disorders
Some children with autism or other learning difficulties are better able to interact with pets than people. Autistic children often rely on nonverbal cues to communicate, just as pets do. And learning to first connect with a cat or dog, for example, may even help an autistic child in their interactions with people.
Finding a pet that meets your needs and lifestyle
- Pets can help children with learning disabilities learn how to regulate stress and calm themselves, making them better equipped to overcome the challenges of their disorder.
- Playing and exercising with a pet can help a child with learning disorders stay alert and attentive throughout the day. It can also be a great antidote to stress and frustration caused by the learning disability.
- Learning to ride a horse can help elevate the self-esteem of disabled children, putting them on a more equal level with kids without disabilities.
While people who have pets tend to be happier, more independent, and feel more secure than those without pets, it's important to select the type of pet that is best for you. You'll benefit most from having a pet whose needs are compatible with your lifestyle and physical capabilities.
Lifestyle considerations that influence your choice in a pet
- Little outdoor activity - If most of your
time is spent at home, consider pets that would be happy to stay
with you in that environment. You may enjoy playing with or cuddling
a cat or a bunny; watching fish or reptiles; or talking or singing
along with a bird.
- High activity level - If you're more active
and enjoy daily activities outside of your home, especially walking
or running, a dog might be right for you. Canine companions thrive
on outdoor exercise, keeping you on the move.
- Small children and the elderly - Families with small children or elderly living in their homes should consider the size and energy level of a pet. Puppies and kittens are usually very active, but delicate creatures that must be handled with care. Large or rambunctious dogs could accidentally harm or knock over a small child or adult who is unsteady on their feet.
- Other animals in household - Consider the
ongoing happiness and ability to adjust of the pets you already
have. While your cat or a dog might love to have an animal friend
to play with, a pet that has had exclusive access to your attentions
may resent sharing you.
- Home environment - If a neat, tidy home, free
of animal hair, occasional muddy footprints and "accidents" is
important, then a free-roaming dog or long-haired cat may not
be the best choice. You may want to choose pets that are confined
to their quarters, such as fish, birds, hamsters, or reptiles.
- Landscaping concerns - With certain pets,
your landscaping will suffer. Many dogs will be tempted to dig
holes in your lawn, and dog urine can leave yellow patches-some
say unaltered females cause the most damage.
- Time commitment - Finally, and perhaps most
importantly, keep in mind that you'll be making a commitment that
will last the lifetime of the pet - perhaps 10, 15, or 20 years
with a dog or cat; as many as 30 years or more with a bird.
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