Benefit Human Health
articles present pet ownership as a key to heart health, social
support, and long life. In one study last year, researchers
at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that married
couples who owned pets had a lower heart rate and blood pressure
whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests than those
without pets. Last May at a seminar in Portugal, the Federation
of European Companion Animal Veterinary Surgeons emphasized
the many health benefits of pet ownership. But they also alluded
to some negatives. This report takes up both sides of the question.
health benefits of pet ownership are obvious for people who
like animals, and most of us doat on friendly, clean, non-threatening
animals. Dogs and cats are generally more affectionate and entertaining
as pets than, say, fish or birds or ferrets, though many delight
in those animals, too. A dog is generally the most responsive
pet, and walking a dog provides exercise benefits at both ends
of the leash. Dogs and cats promote human contact -- you communicate
with other pet owners. Boy-meets-girl-via-dog is a film cliché.
that, a pet gives you something to care for and thus provides
some structure for your life. You have to set out the food,
visit the vet, clean the cage, empty the litter, and so on.
A pet often takes center stage at family gatherings, easing
tensions and/or providing an immediate conversational outlet.
And, of course, dogs can be trained for useful work such as
aiding the visually impaired, for example. Even the most pampered
cat can help rid your home of mice. Pets have a calming effect
on most people. Nursing homes now arrange for pets to visit
residents, and some facilities keep pets on the premises.
Even the government approves of pets. The National Institutes
of Health conducted a workshop almost 20 years ago on the health
benefits of pets and pet-facilitated therapy (PFT). Conclusion:
these benefits exist, particularly for the elderly.
and a dash of common sense
of the pioneers of PFT was Erika Friedman, now head of the Department
of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Brooklyn College. But pets
are not medicine, and the scientific case for the benefits of
pet ownership is not watertight. In 1995 in a review of research,
Dr. Friedman said there's no question that emotions have an
impact on health, and that pets may help promote positive emotions.
Still, it will always be difficult to study this subject scientifically.
If pet owners are healthier, it's always possible that they
were healthier to begin with. Clinical trials are impossible
in areas like this. You can't really hand out pets and test
their effects, as you might test the effects of a drug.
though it has been shown that the presence of a friendly pet
can have a positive effect on heart rate and blood pressure,
it's not clear that a person actually has to own the animal
to get the effect. Still, Dr. Friedman concludes that since
heart disease and other stress-related diseases are so common
in our society, it can't hurt to recommend pets for their calming
effect, at least for people who like animals and are willing
and able to undertake the responsibility of owning one.
have interacted with companion animals since the beginning of
history, and that interaction may belong as much to the realm
of common sense as to science. If a pet adds joy to your life
and makes you feel better or more secure in your home, or provides
entertainment and structure, you hardly need scientific proof
of the benefits.
you're thinking of getting (or giving) a pet, remember the downside.
Dogs and cats can be expensive and limiting. You have to provide
for their care when you're away from home. They cause wear and
tear on your clothing and furnishings, shed hair, and make messes
you have to clean up. A barking dog may alienate your neighbors.
Some people are allergic to animal dander. A dog must be socialized,
that is, carefully trained in order to be a good pet. If infants
or small children are part of the household, their relationship
with a pet has to be supervised. It's never a one-way street.
And pets are not a panaceaas Dr. Friedman notes, they won't
cure cancer or heart disease. But for many people, the right
pet is a real plus, well worth any trouble and expense.
and Your Health.