Are Pets Good for Your Health?

Do dogs, cats and guinea pigs offer health benefits to their owners?

Do dogs, cats and guinea pigs offer health benefits to their owners? That’s the common wisdom, but the jury is still out on just how therapeutic pets really are, according to a recent article in the New York Times. In 2008, the National Institutes of Health launched a research initiative to examine the relationship between pets and our health. Here’s some of what they’ve found so far.

  • Scientists looked at 421 heart attack victims—some dog owners, some not—a year after they’d suffered their myocardial infractions. Dog owners who had canine companions were far more likely to be alive than were those without, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.
  • A study of more than 2,000 adults found, not surprisingly, that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog. Another study followed older adults and found that those who regularly walked a dog had greater mobility inside their homes than others who took part in the study.
  • Walking a dog leads to more conversations and helps you stay socially connected, which in turn leads to living longer with fewer mental and physical declines as you age, another study indicates.
  • It’s not just seniors and other adults who may be able thank their pets in part for their emotional well-being. “When children are asked who they talk to when they get upset, a lot of times their first answer is their pet,” Dr. James Griffin, a scientist at NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development told the NIH “News in Health” newsletter. “This points to the importance of pets as a source of comfort and developing empathy.”

Other studies indicate that pets may:

  • help lower blood pressure
  • reduce stress
  • lower health care costs (pet owners visit the doctor less frequently than those who don’t have an animal, research indicates)
  • fight depression

Whether these apparent boosts can be proven or not remains to be seen. But in the meantime, if you’re weighing the pros and cons of pet ownership, you might want to take this evidence into account.

Sources: The New York Times, the National Institutes of Health

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest