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Health Benefits of Companion Animals

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My experience as a pet owner is mostly with dogs. I have nothing against cats, I just never had success keeping one at the Tucson ranch where I spent most of my adult years - coyotes tended to make feline life there perilous.

The fact is, companion animals of all kinds - dogs, cats, even rabbits and hamsters - enrich our lives. Research shows that pet owners have less illness, recover faster from serious health conditions, and tend to be more content than people who do not own pets. Some specific potential benefits of owning - or even being near - companion animals include:

  • Fewer feelings of loneliness: A survey by the American Veterinary Association found that nearly 50 percent of respondents considered their pets to be companions, while only two percent thought of them as property. And a Purdue researcher found that 97 percent of respondents talk to their pets.

  • More compatibility among humans: Having dogs in the office appears to improve the ability of workers to bond with each other. Researchers from Central Michigan University first brought together 12 groups of four individuals each, and asked each group to come up with a 15-second advertisement for a fictitious product. Some of the groups had dogs in the rooms while they worked, some did not. Afterward, the group members were asked how they felt about working with their teammates. Those from groups that had a dog ranked the others on their teams more highly on measures of trust, team cohesion and intimacy than did members in the groups who had no canine companionship while they worked.

  • Fewer allergies: This one may seem counterintuitive - pets trigger allergies, so how could they alleviate them? The answer appears to be early exposure. A study by University of Wisconsin - Madison researchers determined that when an infant and a dog share a household, the infant enjoys reduced allergic sensitization and fewer allergy-related skin rashes. The researchers noted that other studies had found a similar effect when cats and infants share households.

  • Lower blood pressure: A University of Buffalo, NY study assessed 48 stockbrokers, all of whom were taking the blood-pressure-lowering medication lisinopril. Twenty-four of the brokers had a household dog or cat added to their treatment regimen, and enjoyed more stable cardiovascular health measures during stressful situations than did the 24 pet-free brokers. "When we told the group that didn't have pets about the findings, many went out and got them," said one of the researchers.

  • Meeting other people: Enhancing a person's ability to meet others isn't typically regarded as a medical benefit, but on the other hand, being more social is strongly associated with good mental and physical health. Writer Allen Sarkin conducted an informal "study" for New York Magazine in which he sequentially walked seven breeds of dogs on the city's Upper West Side, and counted the number of women (Sarkin did not track men) who approached to pet the pooch and chat. The winning breeds? A Great Dane and a "quivering, rat-faced" toy poodle. The losers were comely purebreds: a golden retriever, a long-haired dachshund and a standard poodle, which Sarkin concluded offer "good looks but little charm." I know of no studies confirming that the effect works in the opposite direction - that a woman walking a dog will attract male attention - so perhaps further research is indicated.

I would emphasize that having a companion animal is indeed a serious responsibility. You must think long and carefully about whether one is right for you and, if so, which type and breed best suits you and your household circumstances. But if you are on the fence - as I certainly was 30 years ago - be sure to consider the positives that go along with pet ownership, rather than simply focusing on the negatives. You may ultimately find that both you and your pet are happier and healthier for having found each other.

Read more: An Unlikely Dog Person (my article on the Huffington Post)

See a photo essay: My Life With Dogs

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