Owning a pet can reduce stress and improve many aspects of your health. But not everyone is cut out for pet ownership.
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
Denise McVey knows holiday stress all too well. To be sure, she loves the
holidays: going caroling, shopping, buying cards, enjoying the first snow, and,
most of all, loving the look of delight on her toddler’s face on Christmas
morning. But as the days until the holidays dwindle and the lines at the mall
get longer, McVey is so beset by season-induced stress that, when the New Year
rolls around, she’s spent. “Colds, flu, you name it, every year I get it; I’ve
had shingles eight times,” says...
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
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
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
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
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