By Jill Eckersley
"Want to be healthier, fitter and feel less stressed? Then get a furry friend, says Jill Eckersley.
When you come home after a difficult day at work, there's nothing better than a tail-wagging canine looking pleased to see you to cheer you up.
Animal lovers feel instinctively that pets are good for us but could there be some scientific truth to this? After all, early man often depended on signals from animals for survival, suggesting that either he and his family were safe or that there was some sort of threat out there.
Since ancient times dog saliva was considered to be medicinal as it was observed that dog's wounds healed after they had licked them. Roman ladies carried lap dogs which were supposed to soothe stomach aches.
Centuries later Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, observed that having a pet to care for was effective in reducing anxiety in both children and psychiatric patients.
She wrote in her famous handbook Notes on Nursing, published in 1859, that being with animals could help patients recover from illness.
Since the early 1970's pets have been prescribed to improve people's social skills, ease anxiety, improve mood, make independent living easier and reduce loneliness, supplying all the advantages that pet owners instinctively believe in.
Further research studies have also found that contact with animals can benefit humans' physical and mental health in numerous ways.
Pets and Physical Health
Over the past 30 years animal-assisted therapy has been taken more seriously by the medical profession. Many research studies have looked at how owning or being in contact with animals can affect:
- The number of times people go to their GP with minor ailments such as coughs, colds and hay fever.
- The human stress response.
- Blood pressure levels.
- Cholesterol and triglyceride levels which impact heart health.
- The speed at which people recover from serious illnesses including heart attacks
- The strength of the human immune system and its ability to fight infection.
On a very basic level this could be because people with animals tend to be more active - and we all know that exercise is good for us. Regular exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week is the minimum recommended by doctors in order to reduce the risk of common killers such as heart disease, strokes and some forms of cancer.
Active people are also less likely to suffer from Type 2 diabetes and asthma. What better excuse to get out there and get walking than becoming a dog owner? Rain or shine, our canine friends are always ready for a walk. Playing games with them can elevate "feel good" hormones such as serotonin and dopamine. Since the 1980's doctors have been finding that contact with animals can reduce stress in humans.
Stress symptoms such as high blood pressure are reduced, for example, when patients in a dentists' waiting room are able to watch a tank of tropical fish. Stroking a dog or having a dog in the same room can increase levels of oxytocin, also known as the "cuddle hormone", which plays an important role in the formation of emotional bonds.
As well as helping to reduce the stress symptoms which may lead to heart attacks, the presence of animals may also help patients recover from them. A 1980 study showed that dog owners are more than eight times as likely to be alive a year after their heart attack than those who did not have a pet. And it isn't just dogs.
In 2008 another study found that cat owners had a 30 per cent lower risk of death from heart attack than those who did not own a cat. There is also the possibility that contact with animals can benefit the human immune system.
It is known that the incidence of allergic diseases and conditions such as eczema have risen over the past 30 years but the reason for the increase is unknown. One possibility is the "hygiene hypothesis" which states that because we're so much cleaner and germaware than previous generations, our bodies don't get a chance to build up immunity to certain things.
It is known that people who grow up on farms, obviously having more than average contact with animals, who are exposed to animal dander (hair, fur and saliva) are less likely to develop allergies.
Research in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed that babies brought up with dogs showed fewer signs of pet allergies or eczema and they also had fewer colds and ear infections in their first year of life than babies in pet-free homes.
Pets and Mental Health
In 2011 a joint research project between Cats Protection and the Mental Health Foundation looked at more than 600 people with mental health problems, some with cats and some without.
The project found that 87 per cent thought that their cat had a positive impact on their well being while 76 per cent said their cat helped them cope better with everyday life.
Dogs are also more than just loving companions to those with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues.
Animal campaigners say the benefits of dog ownership on mental health include:
- Dogs are a calming presence and owners are drawn to patting and stroking them.
- The touch of a dog's fur is soothing.
- Dogs offer troubled people unconditional love. They don't have an agenda and don't care if their owner is old or young, plain or beautiful.
- Being loved by a dog can raise self-esteem.
- Being a dog owner is excellent for reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Dog owners and walkers always meet others.
- Dogs respond instinctively to body language or tone of voice rather than actual words which can be useful for those who have trouble expressing themselves.
- Dogs can make you laugh!"
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