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Can pets help keep you healthy?
By Lisa Jones
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Can pets help keep you healthy?

Sure, you take great care of your pets – you feed them, walk them and love them – but have you ever thought about what your pets can do for you? Their barking may protect you from intruders, or let you know when the mail carrier drops off your letters, but what other benefit can pets really offer?

People and animals have a long history of co-existence, evidence of which was uncovered a few years back when a 12,000-year-old human skeleton was found buried with the skeleton of a six-month-old wolf pup in Israel. “The bond between animals and humans is part of our evolution, and it’s very powerful,” said Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md.

Today, everywhere you turn – in your neighborhood, at your local farmer’s market, at the beach or city park – people are bonding with their pets. In fact, about two-thirds of all U.S. households now have at least one pet, and that number seems to be exploding.

“The general belief is that there are health benefits to owning pets, both in terms of psychological growth and development, as well as physical health benefits,” says Dr. James Griffin, a scientist at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. More research is needed, however, to fully understand the nature of these relationships.

One thing can be said for sure – dog owners on the whole get more exercise than people without dogs. In fact, research funded by the NIH involving more than 2,000 adults found dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were not only more physically active, but far less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog. Additionally, in his book “The Healing Power of Pets,” veterinarian Marty Becker points to research that found elderly dog owners spend a remarkable 1.4 hours a day outside with their dogs. “The kind of regular, moderate exercise you get by walking your dog 15 minutes twice daily in the morning and at night exactly fulfills the U.S. Surgeon General’s prescription for moderate, regular physical exercise,” Dr. Becker noted. 

The benefits of pet ownership don’t stop at increased levels of exercise, however. Studies carried out by the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control have suggested heart attack sufferers who own dogs live longer; cat owners have lower risk for heart attack and stroke; pets in the household can help children develop emotionally; dog owners who walk their pets make more social connections; and pet companionship has been shown to reduce overall stress levels.

Clearly, more research is needed to learn about the specific benefits of the human-pet connection. But, the bond between the two is long-standing and undeniable. No matter what the research says, it’s been proven, time and time again, the value of having a pet cannot be underestimated and is certainly a relationship which can greatly enhance your quality of life.

Source: National Institutes of Health; Centers for Disease Control.


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