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Can Pets Improve Your Health?

Coming home to find Fido wagging his tail or Felix purring at the doorstep may be doing a lot more for your health than simply warming your heart. A new look at studies on pets suggests that your furry (or scaly, or feathery) friend may be linked to better physical and mental health, especially for the elderly.

Evidence for the health benefits of pet ownership has been conflicting. While early studies concluded that pets help to reduce the risk of asthma in children and cardiovascular disease in adults, more recent data has found otherwise. But researchers in the recent review, published in the British Medical Journal, point to the close relationship between pet and owner that drives the positive benefits.

"The main issue may not be whether pet ownership confers measurable physical benefits, but the role that pets have in people’s lives." writes Dr. June McNicholas and colleagues.

Man’s Best Friend

Studies have found that pet owners may benefit from their companions in one of two ways. First of all, pets promote social contact with other people. Dogs force individuals who live on their own to get out of the house for walks, while also creating a "social catalyst." aiding interaction with others.

But the innate exercise involved in owning a dog may confer benefits, too. In fact, one study found that dog owners were more likely to survive one year after a heart attack than cat and non-pet owners, an outcome that may be caused by the physical benefits of dog walking.

Besides helping individuals get out of the house, McNicholas suggests that pets often fill the hole that individuals may miss when living alone.

"Close human relationships have a powerful influence on wellbeing by providing emotional support." she notes.

Who’s Really the Master?

While it is no surprise that having close human relationships seems to be connected to lower anxiety, better reaction to stress and improved recovery from stroke, heart attack and cancer, studies show that having a dog or cat emulates the emotional support found in a close friendship. However, a close relationship with a pet can interfere with proper medical care.

Some studies cite that as many as 70 percent of pet owners would ignore a doctor’s advice to get rid of a pet if they were diagnosed as allergic to it. Even worse, some seniors report avoiding medical care altogether, worried that a diagnosis requiring long-term hospitalization or placement in a nursing home would mean giving up their beloved pet.

To counter this, McNicholas emphasizes the importance of doctors being aware of these concerns and offering alternatives to simply abandoning a pet. Losing a pet, for whatever reason, can cause more distress and grief for a patient already coping with an illness.

"People do not own pets specifically to enhance their health, rather they value the relationship and the contribution their pet makes to their quality of life." she adds.

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