Friends with benefits

The health benefits of pets

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Anyone who has ever experienced the unconditional love of a treasured pet knows they make great companions.

But what often gets overlooked in the joy of having that pet is how they can enhance your overall health.

A recent study underscores this point. Researchers at Miami University in Ohio concluded that "pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support". Specifically, they found that pet owners were more conscientious, less lonely, enjoyed higher self-esteem and were more physically fit than non-pet owners.

That shouldn't come as a huge surprise. Health-care providers have long known about the benefits of what is known as "pet therapy". Pets are used in a number of therapeutic situations, including to support independence in people with physical disabilities, or to provide companionship to people with mental health challenges. Many nursing homes, invite pets to their facilities in order to boost the spirits of residents.

One local program aims to do just that. Through the Therapy Dog Services program at St. John's Ambulance, volunteers can take their dogs to visit hospitals, seniors' residences and nursing homes. They say visits from a friendly dog help residents to talk and smile more, participate in activities, and even eat and sleep better.

Just the mere company of a companion animal affects the human body by helping to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This in turn lowers the risk for experiencing a number of healthrelated concerns, including heart disease.

For those who have had a heart attack, research indicates that people with a dog or a cat tend to have better recovery rates. A study through the National Institute for Health looked at 421 adults who'd suffered heart attacks. A year later, the researchers found that dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.

One study from the University of Missouri-Columbia, suggests that humandog interaction helps people cope with depression and stress-related disorders. A few minutes of stroking a pet dog prompts a release of a number of "feel good" hormones in humans, including serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. These help people calm down and relax. Petting a pooch also results in decreased levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol: the adrenal chemical responsible for regulating appetite and cravings for carbohydrates. All of these studies serve to remind us that a pet is a very good friend, indeed.

The benefits provided by pets are not limited to emotional health or rehabilitation. They can also help keep you fit. Taking a dog for a walk, riding a horse, or simply chasing a kitten around is fun way to stay active day to day. Pets can also help add structure and routine to your day. No matter your mood, be it depressed, anxious or stressed, you have to get out of bed to feed, exercise and care for your pet.

And while pets are a great source of companionship, they don't replace your need for friendship and connection with people. In the study at Miami University, those who enjoyed the greatest benefits from their pets actually had closer relationships with friends and family, and continued to receive support from these people in their life. Pets can even help us to connect with others, as they can be an instant icebreaker when making conversation with new friends or neighbours on the street.

What if you don't have a pet? Allergies, your financial situation, limited time or ability to properly care for a pet might make pet-ownership not right for you. Volunteering at an animal shelter is a no-cost option for getting some quality animal time. Shelters are always grateful for the help they receive from volunteers. The Winnipeg Humane Society and D'Arcy's ARC are just two of the local shelters that rely on volunteers.

Other simple ways to get your animal-fix might be to offer to walk your neighbour's dog (they might appreciate it as well!), or take a few moments to pat the neighbourhood cat as it greets you on the sidewalk. Explore the world of farm animals by attending a petting farm, such as Deer Meadow Farms, or the Open Farm Day organized by Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.

The benefits that pets have on health are not limited to dog and cat ownership, but include any animal that suits your lifestyle. Think guinea pigs, birds, goldfish, rabbits, and many others. What matters most is your personal experience as a pet owner and relationship with your pet as a source of social support.

It's clear that the animals in our lives do us a world of good in helping to boost our own resilience and promoting health and wellness. So give thanks to the furry (or scaly!) best friend in your life and give them a good scratch or hug. It will be good for both you and your pet!

Christine Holowick-Sparkes is a mental health co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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