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.
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.
Lessons From the Pound
The two main reasons people take pets to the pound are 1) the owners move, and 2) the pets' behavior is a problem, according to Mo Salman, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. He led a study of why people relinquish pets. "One thing that surprised me about the study was finding the short turnover of dogs and cats relinquished to shelters," he said. "Average time was less than a year. My interpretation is that people just didn't give it thought before getting a pet."
The study also revealed people were more likely to give up a pet if they received it from someone else as opposed to getting it on their own. "I think well-meaning friends and family should recognize the person's ability to accommodate the pet's needs," Salman says. "Some matchings are perfect, but others are dangerous. Perfect matching is giving an elderly person who mainly stays at home a sweet, older cat that's always been a house cat. A risky match would be giving her a puppy. There's a balance. People need to consider both the animal and human needs."
Enjoy Pets Without Responsibility
You can get all the pet companionship you want without the responsibility of ownership. Just ask Jackie Ireland of Omaha, Neb. She and her husband vowed never to own another animal after their beloved cat, Tinker, became seriously ill and was euthanized at age 13. Eventually she found she could indulge her love of felines by cat sitting for neighbors in her townhome complex.
Other options to pet ownership carry varying degrees of responsibility. Many animal shelters need "foster parents" for pets not quite ready for adoption. If you don't want animals in your home, you can volunteer to work at an animal shelter. Tasks may be as unglamorous as cleaning cages or as rewarding as bottle-feeding kittens. Animal shelters also provide educational outreach services that depend on volunteers to take animals to schools or shopping malls. Animal-assisted therapy groups also need help taking animals to visit nursing homes, children's hospital wards, and residential treatment facilities.
Whether a part-time relationship with animals as a volunteer carries the health benefits studies attribute to pet ownership isn't known. But many people, like Ireland, say they derive immense satisfaction from the interaction. "I get the best of all worlds," she says. "I'll never have to face putting another cat to sleep, I don't have full-time responsibility for a pet, but I still have cats in my life."