As anyone who owns a dog knows, dogs need their walks. Oh, they can walk around by themselves, but nothing beats having a walk with their pack leader. To a dog’s way of thinking, that’s a real walk. Photo courtesy of Humane Society of the United States

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

I’ve long held that our pets are more than just fun to have around; they are members of the family. 

But it seems that, according to the latest studies by scientists and doctors, more than just being good company – pets are good for our health. 

For many years, dogs have been trained to help guide the blind, the deaf and the handicapped in their daily activities. 

They can assist individuals in wheelchairs and can even help to alert people who suffer from seizures before an onset of a seizure, and they can also help to diagnose cancer.

We all know that a positive attitude helps the healing process, and every animal lover knows there’s no more positive feedback than the attention of an animal companion. 

While humans may be judgmental, our pets are not. They provide an unlimited supply of unconditional love.

In a study done several years ago, patients with pets had a significantly greater survival rate during the first year after their discharge from the hospital. 

The results of that study were subjected to years of rigorous statistical analysis before the study was published, because it seemed almost impossible that an activity as ordinary as keeping a pet could influence the course of disease. 

It was only later, when scientists learned more about the many ways in which pets change their owners’ lives, that the life-preserving effect of pets became believable.

They’ve been proven to reduce high blood pressure, relieve anxiety and promote longer lives. 

Is this prescription a magic pill or potion? 

“No,” says Dr. Susan Jones, professor of nursing at Kent State University. “It’s just the power of pet therapy.”

The very qualities that make us love our pets are what make them good for us.

Pets give us a sense of purpose, unconditional love and acceptance. 

New research suggests that animal visitation programs in institutional settings (like nursing homes and children’s cancer wards) are associated with the tendency of older patients to smile and talk more and be more alert and chronically ill children to suffer less depression.

A while back, I was watching one of those Caesar Milan “Dog Whisperer” shows. 

Caesar went to help a counselor at an adult group home who had a dog she wanted to use as a therapy dog with some of her developmentally disabled and mentally handicapped patients.

Caesar and the lady brought the dog in, a pretty German shepherd mix whose only problem was that she was shy around humans.

It was wonderful to watch everyone’s eyes light up at the sight of the dog. 

One young man, who had been sitting slumped over in a chair avoiding eye contact, saw the dog and sat straight up. 

His caretakers were surprised when, in a moment, he was on his feet, shuffling over to the dog. 

He whispered something to the dog. 

A counselor asked him what he’d said and he repeated it.

“I really love animals,” he said. 

The scene brought tears to my eyes. 

Here was a young man who had trouble making friends and communicating with people – who didn’t want to talk to anyone – but when he saw that dog walk in, his face lit up. 

And here was a dog who had been rescued from an abusive situation, being given a second chance at happiness and a useful occupation as a therapy dog. 

The moment that young man and the dog met, their friendship began.

It was the perfect pairing of needs – the need to trust and be trusted – and yet another example of how much “man’s best friend” can mean to someone – especially someone who has trouble relating to people or dealing with stress.

Now, you don’t have to tell dog lovers, like me, how much warmth and comfort canine companions can add to our lives. 

But many of us might not know that a growing body of evidence is proving how having a dog, or a cat (or any domesticated animal- from a horse to a bird) can help improve our physical health.

Let’s start with what pets can do for our hearts.

Having a dog, has, for a while now, been associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Several studies have shown that dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-dog owners. 

When people speak to people, blood pressure almost always rises. 

Sometimes the rise can be dramatic, bringing the subject’s blood pressure into the hypertensive range. 

Studies have shown that, in contrast, when people speak to their pets, their blood pressure either remains the same or can even fall below the subject’s normal, resting rate.

Research also suggests that people who have dogs experience less cardiovascular “reactivity” during times of stress. 

That means that when stressed, their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly, lessening the effects of stress on their bodies.

And it doesn’t hurt their blood pressure levels that dog owners tend to get more exercise. 

As anyone who owns a dog knows, dogs need their walks. 

Oh, they can walk around by themselves, but nothing beats having a walk with their pack leader. To a dog’s way of thinking, that’s a real walk.

Some days, especially in the winter, the only thing that’ll get me outdoors is the plaintive look in my dog’s eyes, asking me to take her out for a walk.

In a special health report published by the Harvard Medical School titled, “Get Healthy, Get a Dog” researchers mentioned that just touching a companion animal can have what doctors call the “pet effect.” 

Several studies have shown that our blood pressure goes down measurably whenever we pet a companion animal. 

“If this were a drug, it would be marketed tomorrow,” said veterinarian, Dr. Roger Lavelle, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne’s Veterinary Clinical Centre in Australia.

Lavelle is referring to a recent study at the University of Melbourne which indicated that pet owners have significantly reduced levels of all indicators for cardiovascular disease, including lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels than non-pet owners, differences that weren’t explained by diet, smoking or weight.

And there are benefits that can be measured whether we are awake or asleep.

Contrary to a study I read not too long ago which suggested that people who have trouble sleeping might want to exclude their pets from their bedroom at night (horrors – what would my cat and dog say?), I would cite a study done by The Center for Sleep Medicine. 

They surveyed 150 pet-owning patients about their sleep habits and found that while 20 percent of the subjects reported sleep issues because of pets, 41 percent of subjects said their animals did not disrupt their sleep. In fact, many mentioned feeling more secure and relaxed with a Fido or Garfield curled up nearby.

This, and other studies suggest that dogs can adopt a sleep pattern to match their owner’s. 

Cats, however, are nocturnal creatures and tend to roam around and re-position throughout the night, with only a few spending the entire night snoozing in one place.

Undoubtedly, this study will be cited by dog lovers as further evidence that dogs are way better than cats.

But don’t write cats off as second class companions! 

There are countless stories about how special a cat can be.

Last winter I read a story about a cat named Masha, a long-haired tabby living in Obninsk, Russia. 

Masha was a friendly “neighborhood cat” who liked to wander the streets of the town, seemingly belonging to everyone in the neighborhood, but no one in particular.

One day she deviated from her pattern. She climbed into a box that had been left in an alley and would not leave it, even to visit the shopkeepers who fed her every day. 

Masha meowed and kept meowing until someone investigated, and discovered an abandoned baby in the box.

A hospital spokesman said that the infant had not suffered any ill effects of the freezing weather. The cat having curled up with the baby to keep him warm, had prevented what could have been a tragedy. 

So, Masha went from being the friendly neighborhood cat to the hero of the whole town.

With the growing number of elderly people living alone, pets can play an increasingly important role. 

They can give an elderly person someone to care for, as well as providing an opportunity for exercise and socialization. 

Often, a pet is the only reason an older adult feels he or she has to get up in the morning.

I heard a story a 72 year-old widower who valued his independence and declined to live with his son. 

The son could only visit on weekends, so during the week, the old gentleman was alone. 

It soon became evident that he was not eating enough to stay healthy. 

He and his wife had had a cat, but it died before his wife did and he hadn’t thought to replace it. 

The son went to the shelter and got a cat for his father, who was delighted with the pet. He began to eat better and take better care of himself. 

After a few weeks, an elderly lady who lived next door had made friends with the cat – and through the cat, made friends with her neighbor, as well. Pretty soon they were sharing walks and meals and the man’s son no longer worried so much about his dad being alone during the week. 

When researchers reviewed 25 studies on the effects of pets on elderly people in nursing homes it was found that residents exposed to pets consistently smiled more and became measurably more alert than those who did not have visits from animals. 

Judith Siegel, Professor of Public Health at the University of California at Los Angeles, said, “Pet ownership, especially in the elderly population, might provide a new form of low-cost health intervention and disease prevention.”

Many studies indicate that elderly people who own pets visit doctors less often than those without four-legged friends. 

Pets have been shown to build self-esteem, increase mental alertness, and lift the spirits of people with Alzheimer’s disease. 

According to Dr. Leo Bustad, “Pets can restore order to people’s lives and provide a more secure grasp of reality.”

And a pet is the greatest ego booster in the world. 

No matter who you are, your pet thinks you’re the cat’s pajamas!

Of course, animals come with their own set of needs, physical and financial– and meeting those needs is a big responsibility.

Whether you’re young or old, be sure you have the right pet for your situation.

A person might be interested in a large dog for protection, but a young, large dog can be hard for people to handle. And, as cute as a puppy is, house training and puppy behavior can make them a real handful.

Elderly adopters may find it easier to have a more mature dog or an affectionate, adult cat.

Cats can live indoors all the time, require less exercise than dogs and can keep themselves clean, but their litter box needs to be changed regularly. 

Different breeds of dogs and cats tend to have specific characteristics which can make some a better fit for a certain situation than others.

A little research can help you make sure to make a match that will be happy for you and your animal companion.

While scientific studies continue to teach us how animals can help us live healthier lives, pet owners will go on loving and being loved by their animal companions. 

Studies or no studies, we already know how much they enrich our lives.