Fur factor: The health benefits of pets

People with companion animals know almost intuitively that having a pet is good for them.

At one time this might have been considered little more than feel-good fuzziness. But a growing body of research shows the presence of cats, dogs, fish, birds and other critters is indeed beneficial to the human species.

The positive influence of pets has been measured on blood pressure and heart health. One small-scale study found that people with borderline hypertension who adopted a dog did better on blood-pressure and stress measures at the end of three months than members of a control group who didn’t have dogs.

Other studies, such as this one, have found that animal companionship can serve as a form of social support that helps people cope with stress.

Researchers also have uncovered positive links between pets and social connections with one’s community, the ability to navigate through difficult life transitions, and the lessening of loneliness.

Exactly how the presence of a pet can accomplish this isn’t fully known. But veterinarian Leo K. Bustad thinks it’s vital to human health and well-being to be connected with animals and the natural world:

Recently we have "rediscovered" that a close relationship between people and the natural environment, most especially animals, is vital to the well-being of our planet, its inhabitants and its habitat. This relationship helps fulfill our inherent need to nurture. The roots of this relationship, often referred to as a "bond," go back thousands of years; but urbanization, industrialization, mechanization and other forces have caused the diminution of the opportunities for nurturing and affectionate interaction with people and our natural surroundings. This deprivation of nurturing opportunities has resulted in increased stress and consequent challenges to our health.

Pets are not the antidote to every ill, to be sure. Researchers at organizations such as the Delta Society and the University of Minnesota’s Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments say there’s still much we need to learn. What types of interventions are most effective? Which populations should be targeted? How can we assure that the needs of the animal also receive due consideration? (There’s some debate, for instance, on whether a life as the resident cat or dog at a nursing home is indeed the best life for an individual animal.)

Although many of these questions have yet to be answered, it’s fairly clear that American society does in fact value the role of companion animals, as the groundbreaking this week for a new shelter for the Humane Society of Kandiyohi County demonstrates. It’s a good time in history to be a companion animal and a good time to be someone with a companion animal.

Photo credit: HealthBeat photo by Anne Polta.

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