The Healing Power of Pets

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

We know instinctively that petting and playing with our pets is good for us. It relaxes us, gives us a sense of connection, and reminds us that we have a special place in this manic 24/7 world.

But beyond “the feels,” as my grandkids might say, it turns out that our four-legged friends can truly benefit our well-being. Research repeatedly confirms that having a pet – especially a dog – can support health in important ways. That’s why, as a doctor who believes in using the best of conventional and alternative medicine, I often recommended that my patients adopt a pet, and why in my home we have always cherished the presence of our own dogs.

Pets Are Natural Healers

For the majority of my life, I have always had at least one dog in the house. No matter what, they never failed to bring my family joy and laughter, not to mention unconditional love. I also used to bring “Chewie,” one of my beloved Chow Chows, to work with me.

One day, I saw a patient who’d recently lost her husband and was understandably, depressed. Chewie must have sensed it because she repeatedly walked over to the woman and lovingly nuzzled her, as if to try raising her spirits. At the end of the office visit, I told this patient that I thought Chewie was trying to give her a message. “Maybe you need to reconnect with a pet,” I said.  The woman had once owned cats. As she went out the door, she turned and thanked me and said she would consider getting another cat.

As strange as it may seem, this was one of the more frequent prescriptions I handed out over the years – to get a pet, if a patient didn’t already have one. As I’ll talk more about in a few minutes, I believe pets are great healers. Their love is very high-vibrational energy, and I’ve learned from patients how comforting their pets have been during recoveries from surgery or hospital stays.

How Pets Benefit Our Health

Pets are known to have many positive effects on their owners, including reductions in the number of sick days taken, doctor visits, and feelings of depression and loneliness, and increases in exercise, social interactions, and feelings of social support.

Owning a pet can even help the elderly maintain their independence. In one study, older persons with a dog or cat were better able to perform basic physical activities of daily living, such as climbing stairs; bending, kneeling, or stooping; taking medication; preparing meals; and bathing and getting dressed.

But, as you might expect, I especially like the ways pets can benefit heart health – particularly dogs.

In a 2017 study of more than 3 million people in Sweden, ages 40 to 80, researchers found that owning a dog could be linked to a lower risk of developing heart disease. This was especially true among people who lived alone. For them, having a dog decreased heart attack risk by 11 percent and risk of cardiovascular-related death by 36 percent. And if we take a closer look at the connection between dogs and individual heart risk factors, you can start to see why.

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You stay more physically active.

If you’ve got a dog, you know they love to play and go for walks – which usually means you’re on the move with them. In fact, one study found that dog owners who walk their dogs walk an average of 18.9 minutes more per week than nonowners. That may not seem like much, but like a lot of choices having to do with heart health, little things add up big over time. That extra movement not only helps keep your heart strong, but it also helps you manage your weight and blood pressure – two things that have an enormous impact on cardiovascular health.

Your blood pressure is probably lower.

Several studies have found that interacting with a dog (or even just having a dog in the room with you) can actually lower your blood pressure. This is important because if your blood pressure is high, you’re at greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure damages arteries and forces the heart to work harder than normal. Down the road, that kind of wear and tear can evolve into blockages and heart failure. Exercise and eating right will help keep blood pressure in check – and so, too, will spending time with your dog.

You handle stress better.

None of us can escape stress, which makes managing its effects all the more important. Pets can give us a boost here. According to the science, pet owners tend to react to stress less strongly and recover from it more quickly. Interaction with dogs, specifically, may also reduce levels of cortisol – a stress hormone that wreaks havoc on your arteries and metabolism when it’s high for too long.

You have higher heart rate variability.

Heart rate variability (HRV) is a term describing the subtle fluctuations in the amount of time between heart beats, and it’s one that I put a lot of stock in where cardiac risk is concerned. Having high HRV means your heart is more “flexible” and able to respond to changes in the environment. Low HRV, on the other hand, can be a sign that you’re stressed out and trending toward an event. Since low HRV is linked to our stress response – and pets help modulate how we respond to stress – it’s no surprise that ownership also translates into better HRV.

You have better overall lifestyle habits.

I’ve already mentioned that having a dog can foster good exercise habits, but a study released this year suggests that pet owners in general – and dog owners in particular – are more likely to follow a heart-healthy diet, have higher levels of healthy HDL cholesterol, lower blood sugar levels, and lower incidence of diabetes.

You’re less likely to feel depressed or lonely.

The most important heart health benefit a pet can give, in my opinion, is the bond of unconditional love. No matter how badly your day may go, your pet will be there, ready and waiting to remind you that you – and no one else – are the best (and their most-favorite) person in the world. In return, we care for and love them – so much so, that they’re not just our pets, but our “best friends.”

These relationships give us feelings of social connection and purpose, and that no doubt is why studies show that people who own pets are less likely to report feeling lonely, and that pets can have a positive effect on our mental health. I cannot overstate how important this is in the context of heart health. Social support helps people cope and heal. Depression can both contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease and be a result of it. The love of a pet can help in both cases.

If you have a cardiac event, you’ll probably recover better.

Remember how I said patients told me their pets helped them heal after hospital stays? One of the reasons I began paying attention to this was a study that looked at the effect of pets on heart attack recovery. The one-year survival rate for people with pets was 94 percent, compared to 72 percent among people without pets. What that tells me – and what I saw time and again with my own patients – is that when people go home to a supportive environment, they fare better. Pets, with their unconditional love, play a key role in that.

Adopt Responsibly, Live Well

If reading this makes you believe you can benefit from having a pet, I urge you to adopt responsibly and only bring an animal into your home if you want the animal as much or more than the health perks. Adopting with the wrong intention can end up being more stressful than beneficial – for you and the pet.

If you already have a pet, cuddle up with it tonight knowing that it’s giving not only joy and love, but good health as well.


© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.

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