Furry Friends Can Aid Your Health

You'd be surprised by the health benefits of pet ownership. Owning a pet can be good for your health. Don't believe that pet ownership is good for you? Walk into the office of cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, and you'll be greeted not just by his friendly staff, but also a few energetic four-legged receptionists.

Chewy and Kuma, both chows, and Charlie, a Norwegian elkhound, are happy to cheer you up, sit by your side and welcome a scratch behind the ears.

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While these three pooches make most of Sinatra's patients smile and feel good, they're not there for the patients' benefit alone. Sinatra brings in his furry family members as a way to keep him energized and calm, so he's at his best while treating patients all day.

"It's not their fault, but some patients can be cruel at times. A lot of them are suffering and it's definitely understandable, but it can drain you as a physician," he says. "And you don't want to bring toxic energy from one patient to another."

Between patients, his dog Chewy, the oldest chow, will often follow him into his office. "I'll sit and pet my dog. Make loving contact with her eyes, and I'll be renewed to go to the next patient," remarks Sinatra.

In other words, these healing dogs are his on-site therapists. "I practice much better medicine when the dogs are in the office," says Sinatra, who runs the Heart and Longevity Center in Manchester, Conn.

Science Behind Why We Love Pets

And he preaches what he practices. In his book Heart Sense for Women, Sinatra mentions the various benefits pets can have on our health. One of the most important is alleviating loneliness.

In fact, loneliness is one of the most damaging risk factors in people recovering from heart disease. Studies have shown that patients who suffer heart attacks but own pets are likely to have five times the survival rate of patients who are not pet owners, according to Sinatra.

Another big benefit of being in the presence of a pet is that it can induce relaxation. The simple act of petting an animal is known to cause a person's blood pressure to drop, says Alan Beck, ScD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University.

The relaxation doesn't just affect people, it affects the animal, too. "We've shown that when you pet a dog, not just your heart rate slows down and blood pressure drops, but so does the animal's," Beck says. This indicates a true, mutual human-animal bond.

What Research Concludes

While petting an animal can make us feel more relaxed, signs now point to the health benefits of pet ownership. One recent study by researchers at the State University of New York, Buffalo, looked at the effects of pet ownership on 48 stockbrokers who were already taking medication for hypertension. It found that the 24 stockbrokers who were given a pet had significantly more of a reduction in high blood pressure accompanying stress than did those without pets.

"Most studies show a direct benefit from stroking a pet, for example, but this one goes a step further in that the act of owning a pet lowered blood pressure," says Alan Entin, Ph.D., past president of the division of family psychology of the American Psychological Association.

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Pets can be, as Entin put it, emotional lifesavers as well, because they help people adapt, adjust and deal with many changes and losses in life. Pets' unconditional love gives their owners a sense of worth and responsibility when caring for them; pets can help people learn about the continuity of life — birth, death, loss and grief — and offer a sense of intimacy. They are even a way to help couples prepare to have children, he adds.

Dog Walkers Have More Fun

Dogs especially can encourage good-risk behaviors. Research shows that when walking a dog, people tend to make more eye contact and have more people interact with them. People with dogs also tend to walk more on average.

"A lot of people usually hate to walk because it's lonely, but if they have a dog, they find it's something they look forward to doing," Sinatra says. "And it's the best form of exercise for people and dogs."

One recent study by British researchers from Warwick University found that 40 percent of dog owners say they make friends more easily as a result of having a dog. This study also monitored the outdoor routines of pairs of people — one walking alone and the other accompanied by a dog — and found that people routinely initiated social contact with the dog owners.

Whether our pets are furry, feathery or leathery, they are more important to us than ever, moving beyond the ranks of domesticated animals to the more appropriate title of "companion animals."

That very companionship between humans and their pets is not just comforting, it is part of human survival, according to Beck. "I'm not sure we could have gone much past the village stage [of evolution] without our companionship with animals."

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