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Why Pets Are Great For Your Mental and Physical Health

 Having a pet can warm your heart and open your mind, not to mention fill your days with funny antics and furry adventures. Pets can help relieve loneliness and bring joy to the lives of their owners and families. From as early as 2003, studies have been conducted to determine the role that animals and pets play in both the mental and physical health of the people that interact with them on a regular basis.

Dogs have been trained in the past to sniff out objects, people, physical and mental disabilities, and hazardous materials. Recent studies have shown that having pets and being around animals can have an extremely therapeutic effect, slow down cognitive decline, and even improve blood pressure. Pets have been used as a part of therapy since the 1970s. These few studies conducted over the years have studied the innumerable benefits of having pets. 

1. Increased Physical Activity     

Effects, mental and physical health benefits of pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, pet ownership

In April of 2006, a study was published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity that examined the role that owning a pet played on the performance of physical activity on a regular basis. This study revealed that pet owners enjoyed little physical activity more than non-pet owners.

However, dog owners specifically do more non-exercise physical activity than non-dog pet owners. This is because dogs usually require more physical activity on a daily basis compared to other pets like cats, turtles, or fish. In older adults especially, dog-owning is found to be more beneficial than being any other type of pet owner.

A 2011 Study conducted in Canada revealed similar results, observing the use of walking parks by elderly people both with and without dogs.  

2. Reduces Cardiovascular Activity 

Effects, mental and physical health benefits of pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, pet ownership

In this study of 2002, 120 married couples with pets and 120 married couples without any pets were jointly examined. Their baseline mental arithmetic and a cardiovascular test known as the 'cold pressor' were studied in 4 individual scenarios: when the participant was alone, when the participant was with either their pet or their friend (for non-pet owners), when the participant was with their spouse only, and finally, when the participant was with their spouse and pet.

It was noted that there were only slight increases in baseline heart rate and blood pressure for people with pets, showing low reactivity. These patients were also those that showed the quickest recovery. Due to their supportive role in our lives, pets grant significant cardiovascular and behavioral health benefits. 

3. Reduces Negative Responses to Mental Stress

Effects, mental and physical health benefits of pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, pet ownership

In 2001, a study was conducted to evaluate and examine the role of pet ownership in combating mental stress during times that act as stressors, which resulted in an increased heart rate and blood pressure. The experiment was conducted alongside existing ACE-inhibitor therapy. Both control groups were given the same medication, while one group was also charged with the duty of pet ownership.

The resting blood pressure was found to be lowered by the medication provided as a part of the Ace-Inhibitor therapy. However, blood pressure at the time and after the performance of mental stressors, as well as heart rate, was found to be lower in the patients that were assigned pet ownership which aided in increasing social support.      

4. Aids in Long Term Survival for Myocardial Infarction Patients

Effects, mental and physical health benefits of pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, pet ownership

This 2015 study evaluated the role depression plays on the survival of patients previously hospitalized with myocardial infarctions and the contribution of pet ownership to the survival of these patients. Participants were observed over a 3 year period, with 17 patients passing away prior to that.

The Cox proportional hazards regression model was used, which is a method of measuring survival through the regression of the patient. A connection was found in this manner between lack of pet ownership and depression as owning a pet was found to be one of the only significant indicators of mortality, and therefore, survival for patients with this condition. 


5. Reduces Hypertension

Effects, mental and physical health benefits of pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, pet ownership

Notified as a major problem in older adults, hypertension can be extremely harmful to natural bodily functions. A QTQ protocol was carried out in this 2015 study, also known as the Quiet Talk Quiet Protocol. During this, the patient would participate in an exercise that consisted of two minutes of silent sitting, two minutes of talking, and a repeated two minutes of silent sitting. This protocol was conducted twice, once with the presence of an unfamiliar but still friendly dog.

The results were measured from the interaction of three individual markers, the first being the presence of the dog, the second being the activity being performed (quiet or talking) and the third being the order in which the dog was brought out (during the first QTQ or the second).

While there were no major differences in blood pressure rate during the quiet time of the protocol, the presence of the dog contributed to significantly lower blood pressure during the time of talking. This led to the conclusion that pets might serve as a support for reducing blood pressure for hypertensive elderly persons while performing a stressful activity.

A different 2011 study also noted the numerous health benefits to be achieved from regular interaction with dogs. 

6. Improves condition of patients suffering from heart failure

Effects, mental and physical health benefits of pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, pet ownership

In a 2007 study, 76 hospitalized adults participated in 3-Group controlled experiments. The groups were divided on the basis of the model of help to be provided. 1 group was assigned 12-minute hospital visits from a volunteer, another assigned 12-minute hospital visits from a therapy dog, and the final group was given usual care.

The group that was assigned the therapy dog showed significant decreases in systolic pulmonary artery pressure and pulmonary capillary wedge pressure, as well as improved epinephrine levels and norepinephrine levels. The decrease in baseline anxiety was also drastically greater than that of the other control groups. This study provided the conclusive results that the presence of a therapy dog can improve neurohormone levels, reduce cardiopulmonary pressures and anxiety.

A similar study published in 2019 also determined that dog therapy can reduce anxiety drastically.  

7. Improved Cognitive Function in Dementia Patients

Effects, mental and physical health benefits of pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, pet ownership

A study by UCLA, published in the American Journal of Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementia, sought to determine the effects of animal-assisted therapy on patients suffering from agitation and stressful social interactions as a result of Dementia. For conducting this study, 15 residents of a nursing home suffering from Dementia volunteered to participate in daily Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) interventions.

The interaction of the volunteers with the dog and the dog handler was carefully observed, and 9 items were considered a part of this interaction and studied in a flow sheet. These 9 interactions were: looking at the dog, touching the dog, speaking to the dog, remembering and using the dog’s name, engaging in activity with the dog, reminiscing about the volunteer’s own dog, looking at the dog handler, speaking to the handler, and remembering the handler’s name.

The results of this test showed a definite increase in social interaction and memory as well as a decrease in agitated behavior. However, the intervention was conducted only for a period of 3 weeks, requiring a more long-term study to properly map the longevity of these results. 

8. Helps Improve Appetite 

Effects, mental and physical health benefits of pet therapy, animal-assisted therapy, pet ownership

(By LizWinfreyV, Wikimedia Commons)  

A clinical trial held in 2002, contributing to a mass study published in 2014 on animal-assisted therapy, conducted an experiment to determine the benefits of keeping fish in elderly patients. 62 patients from three different nursing homes were split into two groups.

One group had large 30x20 inch fish tanks placed in their dining room or recreational room. Another group of residents had a “scenic ocean picture” added to their dining rooms and recreational rooms. The benefit rendered to participants of both groups was compared.

It was found that there was a slight increase in weight gain for the group exposed to the fish tank and required less nutritional supplements. The other control group, given the ocean picture, experienced no such weight gain or increase in appetite.   



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