Research has long shown that pet owners have better physical and mental health, but what wasn’t clear was whether people of more robust health were more likely to get pets in the first place, or whether it was the owning that had made them healthier.
A German study set out to answer that question, using a sample group of 10,000 people, which they studied over a five-year period. They found that those who had a pet continuously for the five years had the fewest visits to the doctor, with people who had got a pet within the study period being the next healthiest.
Physiologically, it seems the main effects are on cardiovascular health. One study from New York State University found that hypertensive stockbrokers lowered their blood pressure readings after adopting a dog for six months.
Other research has found that just 10 minutes in the company of a pet can significantly reduce blood pressure, as well as raising levels of the ‘bonding’ hormone, oxytocin.
Pet owners also have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-pet owners, which probably contributes to the 3 per cent reduction in heart attack mortality rate. A New York study found that pet ownership was predictive of survival, one year on from a heart attack. Children who have a pet in their first year of life are less likely to suffer from allergies or asthma, too.
But there is undoubtedly a strong psychological component in the pet-health connection. American research found that pet owners coped better with adverse life events, such as bereavement, while other research found that children in war-torn countries coped with their harrowing circumstances better if they owned a cat or dog. Having someone else to worry about other than yourself is probably a big part of it, as well as deriving comfort from the love of a pet.
British researchers found that children frequently preferred pets to humans as providers of comfort and as confidants, and noted that pet-owning aided development of self esteem. Even 50 per cent of adults confide their worries to their pets, 48% describing them as their ‘best friend.’
The benefits of pet ownership have been demonstrated so convincingly that organizations are beginning to take action to convey the advantages of having a four-legged friend to a wider audience. Pets as Therapy is a UK organization which organizes doggy visits to hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions —benefiting around 10,000 patients and residents every week. An increasing number of companies in the United States are allowing dogs to be taken to the workplace — 10,000 companies now participate in the annual ‘take your dog to work day.’ According to the American Humane Association, firms that allow dogs to be brought to work regularly benefit from happier employees, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity. What’s the odd chewed up shoe, dirty paw mark or ‘accident’ compared to that?