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The Pet Prescription: Is It for You?

Owning a pet can reduce stress and improve many aspects of your health. But not everyone is cut out for pet ownership.

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For many pet owners, having a dog or cat fills their lives with companionship and affection. But having a pet may do much more. Evidence is mounting in support of a "pet prescription" for many things that ail you.

 

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Research has shown that when dog or cat owners were asked to perform a stressful arithmetic task, they showed less stress in the company of their pets than in the company of a friend. Other studies have found that owning a pet relieves depression, reduces blood pressure and triglycerides, and improves exercise habits, all of which can lower the risk of heart attacks. Studies even suggest that having a pet might improve survival after a heart attack.

The Pet Prescription

Some studies linking health to animal companionship are very compelling. K.C. Cole, RN, MN, is director of UCLA's People-Animal Connection (PAC), whose volunteers take dogs to visit about 400 hospital patients each month. Besides having witnessed the therapeutic value of animals, Cole has reviewed studies of the human-animal bond and is convinced there are many social, psychological, and physiological benefits.

 

"Among other things, animals contribute to raising self-esteem, significantly lowering anxiety levels, improving attitude toward others and opening lines of communication," she says. "With geriatric patients we see a bridge of communication develop with staff and family when a dog visits."

 

Cole says the most credible studies of the health benefits relate to cardiovascular disease. Heart attack patients with pet companions survive longer than those without, according to several studies.

 

Karen Allen, PhD, a medical researcher at the University of Buffalo, conducted a 1999 study of 48 stockbrokers who had high blood pressure and concluded that owners of a cat or dog had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations than those who had no pets. "When we told the group that didn't have pets about the findings, many went out and got them," she says.

 

In another study, elderly pet owners expressed more satisfaction with life than those without pets. Other studies have shown that pet ownership lessens the likelihood of depression in men with AIDS and can help people with Alzheimer's disease or those with orthopaedic disorders.

 

Should you get a pet? Before you trade pills for a pooch, consider whether you can make the commitment that owning a pet requires.

What's Your Lifestyle?

Look at your lifestyle to determine whether a pet will be a joy or a burden. If you're on the go working and traveling, you'll have to make arrangements for someone to look after a dog, and to a lesser extent, a cat. Physical limitations may prevent you from taking a dog for walks, especially in the winter months. And a dog that barks at everything may add to your stress (not to mention that of your neighbors). Family members or friends with allergies may decide your home is off-limits. If you pride yourself on a clean house, dog or cat hair will become your nemesis, not to mention that a dog will track mud inside on a rainy day and a cat doesn't care where she spits up a fur ball. Finally, be aware of costs, not just for spaying or neutering, shots, bed, carrier, toys, and food, but also for the unexpected things. Talk to pet owners, and you'll find at some time their cherished pet chewed a keepsake photo album or urinated on an heirloom loveseat or ruined some other valuable. Then there's the problem of illness. Medicine and trips to the vet can be costly.

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