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Pets: The purr-fect remedy?

Animal lovers have proclaimed it for years: Dogs, cats and other pets have a magical ability to make humans feel better. Now researchers are discovering that pets do, in fact, impart a variety of physical and emotional health benefits.

From heart disease to autism therapy to marriage counseling, pets—called companion animals by researchers—have demonstrated that their unique ability to calm, revitalize and brighten moods is no illusion. Examples: Patients with hypertension dramatically lower their blood pressure simply by stroking their pets. Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes become more responsive and cooperative when visited by the home’s mascot. Autistic kids exhibit more social behaviors around dogs. People living with AIDS have less stress and cope better if they have pets to care for.

Benefits for every age

Still not convinced? Consider these research findings:

  • Senior citizens with pets have 20 percent fewer doctor visits.
  • Heart-attack patients with pets have a greater chance of one-year survival following the attack than nonowners.
  • Pet owners have lower cholesterol and triglycerides than nonowners.
  • Owners who walk their dogs are in better physical shape than nonowners.
  • Children with pets are more active in sports and hobbies and tend to have higher cognitive ability.
  • Infants raised with pets have fewer cases of adult asthma.
  • Families that obtain pets report their households become happier and more fun loving.

To hear such findings, you’d think pets were living, breathing healthcare providers, bettering the sick and maintaining health. Besides improving physical symptoms, many owners say pets read their moods, as well as alleviate sadness and depression.

Panacea for modern living

Pets’ soothing effects have been clinically observed. Through blood pressure tests, one researcher concluded that animals helped humans relax by quelling our primitive “fight-or-flight” response. This biological reaction, which floods the bloodstream with adrenaline to sharpen the senses in threatening situations, helped prehistoric humans survive real danger.

Today, it’s triggered by crowds, traffic jams, unfamiliar places—even by argumentative relatives. But since pets don’t shove, blow horns, argue or judge, owners feel utterly safe in their presence—and no fight-or-flight response is triggered. Instead, the owner’s heart and mental health are helped by the pet’s serene nudging and purring.

Family affair

Another study showed 99 percent of pet owners regard their animals as family members. Besides reducing stress, pets hold important household jobs—security experts, singers, guardians and rodent exterminators.

Sometimes, new friendships result from simply walking a dog, as noted in a British study. A male clinician using a highly trained dog gauged the number of conversations he could strike up with strangers. First, he dressed sharply and walked without the dog; then he dressed sloppily and walked without the dog. Next, he dressed well and walked the dog; then, dressed sloppily, he walked the dog. Result: More strangers conversed with the well-dressed man walking the dog than his other modes.

Seems that dog-walking is a great way to meet people … and its health benefits will ensure that any new friendships you make will last for years to come.