What pet lovers have known for centuries, scientific studies have now confirmed — pets enhance the quality and quantity of life for their human companions. Especially in these times of Covid, pets can ease social isolation. “We’re social beings as humans. Animals provide emotional and social comfort that can’t always be replicated by our friends and family” (source: Special Time Edition, The Age of Anxiety, June 2020).
One reason why it’s so pleasant to have animals around is their lack of judgment. One of the key parts of the healing power of pets is that they love us in an unconditional way that human relationships rarely achieve. You could be “the meanest, roughest, toughest hombre that’s ever crossed the Rio Grande,” but your dog will still love you. They’re simply there for us and us for them.
According to the American Heart Assn., there is a link between contact with a pet (especially dogs) and a reduced risk for heart disease and greater longevity.
The National Institute of Health’s review of heart-related studies on people who have pets showed that pet owners had decreased levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure — all of which may minimize risk of a heart attack in the future.
A University of Pennsylvania study conducted by Erika Friedmann showed that people who suffered from heart disease were more likely to survive for a longer period if they had a pet at home.
Following their treatment, people with a pet in their lives to return to have a much greater chance of recovery. In fact, pets were found to be a stronger predictor of survival than even having a supportive family around the individual concerned.
These findings were especially true for people who lived alone, though people in multiperson households also experienced a health benefit.
For people living alone, owning a dog can decrease their risk of death by 33 percent and their risk of cardiovascular-related death by 36 percent, when compared to single individuals without a pet, according to the study. Chances of a heart attack were also found to be 11 percent lower.
Dogs force their owners to walk them, thus promoting physical exercise. The American Heart Assn. found that dog owners are 54 percent more likely than the average person to get 30 minutes of physical activity a day. Walking a dog, for example, can also lead to numerous social interactions. Those social interactions are known to help with conditions like depression and anxiety.
“But Judd, what about cats?” Just how often do you see people walking their cats? (I’m not a cat person.) Although, cat lovers everywhere are likely to point out that furry friends of the feline variety have an equally soothing impact on their owners.
The soft fur of a cat (or rabbit) feels wonderful to touch. Stroking and cuddling a pet (dog or cat) helps you calm down quickly by lowering your pulse and heart rate.
In addition, dogs (or cats) can serve as emotional support animals. “I have seen that first-hand in my practice,” says Dr. Sue Kim, an internal medicine physician at Stanford Health Care. “They can help to subvert loneliness or distract in times of stress. Also, they can help individuals endure social settings where they might otherwise not be able to.”
Simply touching an animal can relieve stress. The feel-good hormone oxytocin can increase upon stroking the hair of a dog or rubbing an animal.
It’s that connection. It’s stroking the fur, the tactile sense and the feeling that a child has — this dog loves me. Conversely, cortisol, a stress hormone, has been shown to decrease after time spent with animals, and studies suggest that petting dogs can lower our heart rate.
“Your blood pressure lowers when you interact with an animal in a friendly way, and your muscles relax, too,” said Stanley Coren, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher from the University of British Columbia.
In conclusion, the scientific studies show that pets provide many health benefits. But they are not medicine. If you are thinking about getting a pet, keep in mind the downsides, e.g., expensive, messy, destructive, etc.
Finally, it may not even have to be a real pet. At least one study found cardiovascular benefits from “virtual” pets seen on videos. One study found that just watching a cat video gave participants an energy boost and improved their mood.
Judd Matsunaga is the founding attorney of Elder Law Services of California, a law firm that specializes in Medi-Cal Planning, Estate Planning and Probate. He can be contacted at (310) 348-2995 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Pacific Citizen or constitute legal or tax advice and should not be treated as such.