The Healing Power of Pets - They Prevent Allergies, Reduce Heart Attack Risk and Lower Blood Pressure

Though it has been shown that the presence of a friendly pet can have a positive effect on heart ...

The Healing Power of Pets - They Prevent Allergies, Reduce Heart Attack Risk and Lower Blood Pressure

Though it has been shown that the presence of a friendly pet can have a positive effect on heart rate and blood pressure, it's not clear that a person actually has to own the animal to get the effect. Still, Dr. Friedman, a pioneer of pet-facilitated therapy, concludes that since heart disease and other stress-related diseases are so common in our society, it can't hurt to recommend pets for their calming effect, at least for people who like animals and are willing and able to undertake the responsibility of owning one.

People have interacted with companion animals since the beginning of history, and that interaction may belong as much to the realm of common sense as to science. If a pet adds joy to your life and makes you feel better or more secure in your home, or provides entertainment and structure, you hardly need scientific proof of the benefits.

Prevent Heart Disease

According to a new American Heart Association scientific statement, having a pet might lower your risk of heart disease. The recent statement is published online in the association's journal Circulation.

"Pet ownership, particularly dog ownership, is probably associated with a decreased risk of heart disease," said Glenn N. Levine, M.D., professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, and chair of the committee that wrote the statement after reviewing previous studies of the influence of pets.

Research shows that:

  • Pet ownership is probably associated with a reduction in heart disease risk factors and increased survival among patients. But the studies aren't definitive and do not necessarily prove that owning a pet directly causes a reduction in heart disease risk. "It may be simply that healthier people are the ones that have pets, not that having a pet actually leads to or causes reduction in cardiovascular risk," Levine said.
  • Dog ownership in particular may help reduce cardiovascular risk. People with dogs may engage in more physical activity because they walk them. In a study of more than 5,200 adults, dog owners engaged in more walking and physical activity than non-dog owners, and were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended level of physical activity.
  • Owning pets may be associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and a lower incidence of obesity.

Pets can have a positive effect on the body's reactions to stress.

"In essence, data suggest that there probably is an association between pet ownership and decreased cardiovascular risk," Levine said. "What's less clear is whether the act of adopting or acquiring a pet could lead to a reduction in cardiovascular risk in those with pre-existing disease. Further research, including better quality studies, is needed to more definitively answer this question."

Reduce Allergies

Children who are exposed to household pets during infancy may run a lower risk of developing allergies to these animals later in life.

Researchers at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Goteborg, Sweden, studied data on 2,500 Swedish children and found that children exposed to pets during the first year of life had a lower rate of allergy rhinitis at ages 7 to 9 and lower rates of asthma at ages 12 to 13.

Researchers found that 3.3 percent of children exposed to pets during infancy had asthma at age 12 to 13 compared with 8.5 percent of children who had no exposure to household pets.

The study also found that children with early exposure to cats showed nearly half the rate of cat allergy when they were adolescents compared with kids not exposed to cats when they were babies.

Pet allergies are triggered by dander, or tiny skin flakes, from cats and dogs. Other studies have suggested children born during the peak of the pollen season have a lower risk of being allergic to pollen when they got older. This study appeared in Clinical and Experimental Allergy.

The Healing Power of Pets - They Prevent Allergies, Reduce Heart Attack Risk and Lower Blood Pressure

Stabilize Blood Pressure Better Than Drugs

A pet's calming influence may outperform drug therapy when it comes to reducing stress-related spikes in blood pressure.

"We've shown over and over that it's beneficial to be with a pet when you're under stress," explained Dr. Karen M. Allen of the State University of New York at Buffalo. She reported the findings at a meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA).

Numerous studies have found that pets improve the emotional and physical well being of their owners, especially the elderly. The Buffalo researchers' new findings suggest that Fluffy or Fido may even soothe the savage breasts of stress-prone Wall Street stockbrokers.

In their study, the investigators asked 48 stockbrokers to conduct in-home 'stress tests' aimed at producing temporary spikes in blood pressure. Prior to the study, the brokers lived alone and were diagnosed by their physicians as suffering from hypertension.

In initial stress tests, subjects were asked to either rapidly count backwards by 17 or try arguing their way out of a shoplifting charge. During these exercises, blood pressure levels reached an average peak of up to 184/126 mm Hg.

The stockbrokers were then prescribed the antihypertensive drug lisinopril. Half of the study participants also got a dog or a cat as a housepet.

The researchers repeated a second round of stress tests in the subjects' homes 6 months later. They report that in the brokers without pets, stress-induced blood pressure rose an average of 20 mm Hg, reaching highs of 141/94 mm Hg. Readings like these are "still high enough to be diagnosed as high blood pressure if sustained over a period of time," Allen pointed out.

The brokers who owned pets also had stress-related rises in blood pressure, but these rises were only half as high as those seen in the petless group. And with pets present, the broker owners had average systolic pressures (the first number in a reading, indicating pressure as the heart beats) of just 130 mm Hg -- well within the normal healthy range. Stress-related peaks in diastolic pressure (the second number in a reading, indicating the pressure between beats) were reduced by similar levels.

Pets may even outperform human companions when it comes to controlling hypertension. People with pets don't feel they're being evaluated. They're loved and accepted (by their pets)."

Good for Mind and Soul

People in stress mode get into a "state of dis-ease," in which harmful chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine can negatively affect the immune system, says Blair Justice, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health and author of Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health.

Studies show a link between these chemicals and plaque buildup in arteries, the red flag for heart disease, says Justice.

Like any enjoyable activity, playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine -- nerve transmitters that are known to have pleasurable and calming properties.

"People take drugs like heroin and cocaine to raise serotonin and dopamine, but the healthy way to do it is to pet your dog, or hug your spouse, watch sunsets, or get around something beautiful in nature," says Justice, who recently hiked the Colorado Rockies with his wife and two dogs.

If you're thinking of getting (or giving) a pet, remember the downside. Dogs and cats can be expensive and limiting. You have to provide for their care when you're away from home. They cause wear and tear on your clothing and furnishings, shed hair, and make messes you have to clean up. A barking dog may alienate your neighbors. Some people are allergic to animal dander. A dog must be socialized, that is, carefully trained in order to be a good pet. If infants or small children are part of the household, their relationship with a pet has to be supervised. It's never a one-way street. And pets are not a panaceaas, but for many people, the right pet is a real plus, well worth any trouble and expense.



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