Furry Medicine

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Say you were a doctor and you could only prescribe one thing, the same thing, for all your patients. What would be the most effective thing you could do for people to protect their hearts, blood vessels, and brains? Statin drugs? Nope. An exercise program? Well, that would help. But studies show that the best medicine for health is often a dog or cat.

There have been many studies. One three-year study of 5,741 people at the Baker Medical Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, showed that pet owners had lower blood pressure, triglyceride, and cholesterol levels than did nonowners. This result held up after controlling for such personal differences as cigarette smoking, diet, weight, and socioeconomic profile.

A study at City Hospital of New York looked at ICU patients who had heart attacks or strokes. They found that only 6% of patients who owned pets died within one year compared with 28% of those who did not own pets. Pets gave a bigger survival advantage than did spouses or friends.

Just petting a dog lowers blood pressure, and the effect lasts for hours or days afterward. Other studies have found that pets reduce stress and improve depression. Just watching fish swim in a tank seems to calm behavior and lower stress in people with Alzheimer disease.

How Do Pets Help?
Pets are good for us in many ways, but a lot of them are unknown. Here’s what we do know:

  • Exercise—dogs need to go for walks, so you have to walk with them twice a day or more.
  • Regularizing your life—same thing. You need to walk them, clean up after them, feed them. Sort of like a baby, but not so demanding.
  • Social contact—going out with a pet attracts nice people into your life.
  • Stress reduction—petting an animal soothes the mind and lowers your blood pressure.
  • Unconditional love—nobody loves you like your dog does. Cats are more standoffish, but they have ways of making you feel loved, too.

What other ways have pets helped you?

Are Pets for Everyone?
You have to think about whether a pet is right for you. If you’re too disabled or too busy, you may not be able to handle a dog. Cats are easier, and smaller mammals (like rabbits or guinea pigs) seem to give some of the same benefits as do dogs and cats. Birds can be easiest of all to take care of. Their songs can raise your mood, and they’re extremely cheap to feed.

Of course, as you come to care about a pet, you leave yourself open to worry when they get sick and grief if they die. So that is a potential downside, as it is with any relationship.

The benefits seem well worth it, though. What other therapy helps your heart and your mind and licks your face, too?

What have been your experiences with pets? Do the pluses outweigh the minuses? Let us know. And don’t forget to vote next Tuesday!

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