Pets and Physiological Health

“There is abundant evidence to suggest that the companionship provided by pets has the capacity to both reduce the frequency of serious disease and prolong life. It may be that caring for another facilitates a pattern of psychoendocrine organization which results in greater resistance to disease. Any factor which decreases fear and depression is likely to have direct, beneficial psychological and physiological effects on health.”

— Aaron Katcher and Erika Friedmann

Hospital-heartblanketIn recent years, much of the research into human-animal interactions has expanded beyond pets’ influence on mental health to also examine the neurochemical and physiological changes that occur when we connect with animals. Ongoing research demonstrates that animals can have a salutary impact on cardiovascular issues, reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, and numerous cardiovascular risk factors. Patients with pets have been found to have better survival rates after heart attacks.

Today, this work takes on many exciting new dimensions. Contemplating a fish tank during dental treatment can reduce anxiety. Therapy dogs can reduce stress in patients undergoing MRI scans. Walking dogs may help fight the epidemic of obesity. Counter-intuitively, the presence of pets in early childhood seems to reduce the risk of developing allergies and asthma in later years. Therapeutic riding is widely used to strengthen muscles in people with a wide range of physical disabilities and neurological conditions. Seizure alert animals have been known to have uncanny abilities to predict oncoming epileptic and diabetic seizures.

Elderly people with pets have been found to make as many as 21% fewer visits to physicians. New research suggests that petting a friendly animal reduces our levels of cortisol and increases our natural mood-enhancing homones such as oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin.

Pets contribute to community health as well. The presence of pets has been shown to improve “social capital” — the glue that holds a community together. People with pets are more active in civic affairs, use community recreational facilities more frequently, vote more often, and are more interactive with and trusting of their neighbors.

Whether increasing ambulation among recovering heart-failure patients, or offering a better quality of life for lung transplant recipients, therapy animals can be good for our health – and just what the doctor ordered.