Pets and Your Health

This Saturday, August 11th, is the one-year anniversary of welcoming the feline goddesses, Athena and Artemis, into our home. Given the joy I experience having them in my life, I thought it would be fun to explore what impact pets can have on our health and wellbeing.

My pet history

Growing up, I did not have any indoor pets as almost everyone in my immediate family – including me – was allergic to cats or dogs or both. Several of my close friends had dogs and there was at least one semi-stray cat that hung around the block as the neighbors continued to feed it. I enjoyed playing with these animals and always thought it would be nice to own a pet someday.

Fast forward about 15 years to my desperate attempt to find housing in North Carolina as I prepared to move from New York to start graduate school. Through luck or fate, I was reconnected with an acquaintance from college who was already a student in the same graduate program. She and some friends were renting a house and needed a fourth roommate. The only catch – one of the women had two house cats. Given that my allergy to cats was not severe and my symptoms could typically be managed with over-the-counter medication, I decided to take a chance. I figured it would at least be a place to live temporarily until I could find something else if my allergies prevented me from staying.

I moved in that August and immediately fell in love with the cats. Danny was a big orange tabby who loved to lay on my bed as I studied. Mona was a mischievous little grey tabby who was most often found in the bathroom, waiting for someone to turn on the water so she could play with it. At first, I did experience some allergic symptoms – occasional sneezing fits, watery eyes and a little stuffiness here and there, but I was content to medicate with an anti-histamine. The joy of having these two critters in the house outweighed any discomfort or inconvenience I experienced. They were often a huge source of stress relief during my grueling two-year program.

I was sad to say goodbye to my feline friends when my housemates and I finished school and moved on to new adventures. However, my experience taught me that I could live with cats despite my allergy and I was eager to own a pet of my own. I moved in with my fiancé (now husband) after graduation and a few months later, as I was still struggling to find a full-time job, he suggested we adopt a cat. That was the start of our journey to pet ownership. We are definitely “cat people” although there are several dogs in our extended family whom we love dearly too.

The health benefits of pets

A quick online search revealed a plethora of information regarding the health benefits of owning pets, particularly dogs but cats as well. Here are just a few ways that owning a pet can improve both your physical and mental health:

Reduce your cardiovascular disease risk

  • According to experts at the Harvard Medical School and a 2013 study conducted by the American Heart Association, owning a dog can reduce heart disease risk factors and potentially help you live longer. Experts believe the connection is related to dog owners being more active, since walking your dog can help you meet the recommended daily exercise guidelines. The extra exercise may also be why dog owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Prevent or reduce allergies in children

  • Much like my experience growing up, the old thinking was that if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided. According to WebMD, recent studies have suggested that children growing up in a home with “furred animals,” such as a cat or dog, will have less risk of allergies and asthma. University of Wisconsin-Madison pediatrician James E. Gern has conducted a number of studies that demonstrate having a pet in the home can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing related allergies by as much as 33 percent. In fact, his published research shows that children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall.

Decrease stress

  • Simply being in the same room as your pet can have a calming effect. The neurochemical oxytocin is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy. It is also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone. According to the CDC, studies have shown that cats provide emotional support, improve moods, and contribute to the overall morale of their owners. Dogs not only provide comfort and companionship, but several studies have found that dogs decrease stress and promote relaxation.

Boost your self-esteem

  • Pets are completely non-judgmental – they don’t care what you look like or how you behave. They love unconditionally and that boots our self-esteem. An article on Health.com notes that research studies have found that pet owners have higher self-esteem, as well as feelings of belonging and meaningful existence, than individuals who do not own pets.

As someone who has been a proud pet owner for almost 20 years, I have experienced many of these benefits firsthand. There is nothing better than coming home after a long day at work and having my kitties greet me at the door. Their playful antics often crack me up and as they say, laughter is the best medicine. And when I am feeling stressed, all I have to do is cuddle on the couch, stroke their soft fur and hear their contented purrs to feel calm again.

Owning pets is a big responsibility, but there are so many ways you will reap the benefits of their companionship. Consider adopting a shelter animal today!

 

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