By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
You may not think of a pet as a health and mood booster, but our companion animals without a doubt have such potential. Over the years, I have certainly experienced such benefits of owning a dog, and research has repeatedly confirmed the connection between pets and well being.
Benefits of Owning a Dog
My home life has always been filled with family, friends, and love. I consider myself a blessed man. And part and parcel of home for me has also been the presence of several family dogs, which have always treasured sources of joy and laughter, not to mention unconditional (healing) love and companionship. And not just at home.
I recall some years ago bringing “Chewie,” one of my beloved late Chow Chows, to the office. On this particular day, I saw a patient who had recently lost her husband. She was feeling quite down. Chewie must have sensed something because the dog repeatedly walked over to the woman and nuzzled her in a loving way, as if to try to elevate her mood and sadness.
At the end of the office visit, I told my patient that I thought the dog was trying to give her a message. “Maybe you need to reconnect with a pet,” I said. She 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, among the most frequent prescriptions I have given to patients over the years is to get a pet, a companion animal, if they didn’t already have one. In return, I’ve received much feedback from patients about the benefits of having a pet: not only that the pets have been comforting, but that they helped significantly in recoveries from surgery or hospital stays. As I mention in Happiness for Health, positive emotions are linked to faster healing and even longevity.
Research Validates the Benefits of Having a Pet
A 2015 review by the National Center for Health Research on the impact of companion animals on health highlights the broad nature of the pet healing potential:
- “Studies have found that people who have a pet have healthier hearts, stay home sick less often, make fewer visits to the doctor, get more exercise, and are less depressed and lonely. Pets may also have a significant impact on…social support and social interactions with other people.”
- One study even “found that having your dog in the room lowered blood pressure better than taking a popular type of blood pressure medication (ACE inhibitor) when you are under stress.”
- Among elderly people, pet ownership can serve as a “source of social support that enhances well-being.” In one particular study, older persons with a dog or cat were actually 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.
In another 2014 study, researchers at the University of Rochester found that among 830 patients of primary care physicians those who owned a pet were 36 percent less likely to report loneliness than those without pets. Moreover, it was found, that older adults – both men and women − living alone and without a pet were at increased odds of reporting loneliness. The findings, the researchers said, “indicate that pets may function as a meaningful source of social connectedness,” particularly for those who live alone.
As I mentioned earlier, I have often prescribed getting a pet to lonely patients. I have done so even more frequently before and during Thanksgiving and year-end holidays, a time when individuals who have lost husbands and wives, either by death or separation, are more apt to feel more isolated and lonely.
- Casciotti D, Zuckerman D. Pets and health: the impact of companion animals, 2015. Published at http://healthyhappyhumanbeings.com/pets-and-health-the-impact-of-companion-animals/
- Stanley IH, Conwell Y, Bowen C, et al. Pet ownership may attenuate loneliness among older adult primary care patients who live alone. Aging Mental Health, 2014.18(3):394-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3944143/
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