Pet owners know how much that furry face, those precious eyes and heart-warming charms improve their health and overall well-being.

In fact, it has been said a pet is one of the only gifts that can mend a crack in a heart.

The field of human-animal bond research is dedicated to studying the health benefits of pets and human-animal interaction. I am a passionate advocate of the human-animal bond. Living with an animal, or even just visiting them, has great health benefits, including improvements in mental, social, emotional and physical health. That’s not based on anecdotes — mounds of studies have validated this truth.

The invisible ties that bind you to your pets or time visiting with animals can have a dramatic impact on your life and your health.

Dr. Nina’s What You Need to Know: About the Health Benefits of Animals

Animals have a proven track record as healing agents. In the last decade there has been an increase in the study of the human-animal bond demonstrating that time with your pets or visiting with animals has great health benefits — whether at home, work, or in service.

Pet Owners. Keeping a pet improves your overall health and well-being. People of all ages, both healthy and ill, benefit from living with an animal. Pets do more than being good company. They have been shown to decrease stress, improve heart health, and even help children with their emotional and social skills. One compelling study reported pet-owners make fewer visits to their doctors for ailments and are less likely to be on medication for heart problems and sleeping difficulties.

Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a growing field. AAT is a therapeutic intervention that incorporates animals, such as horses, dogs, cats, pigs and birds to enhance and complement the benefits of traditional therapy. Animal-assisted therapy can reduce pain, anxiety, fatigue and depression in people with a range of health problems. They can help people recover from or better cope with conditions such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders. One example would be a physical therapist using the presence of a dog to increase a stroke patient’s ambulatory skills. And it’s not only people with health problems who reap the benefits. Family members and friends who sit in on animal visits say they feel better, too.

Pet therapy is a broader term that is also a therapeutic intervention being used in nonmedical settings, such as universities and community programs, to help people deal with anxiety and stress.

Service animals are dedicated to aid in the form of trained service, or assistance, to people with disabilities — they help them to live fuller lives. These animals, usually dogs, assist people to accomplish tasks that would otherwise be prohibitively difficult or simply impossible. While these service animals are not considered pets but working animals doing a job — they bring all the benefits of a pet to their assignments.

One of the most familiar service animals is a guide dog who help visually impaired people move about safely. In recent years, hearing dogs have become increasingly common. These dogs, are trained to alert their human partners to ordinary sounds, such as an alarm clock, a baby’s cry, or a telephone by touching the partner with a paw and then leading him or her to the source of the sound. They are also trained to recognize danger signals — such as fire alarms and sounds of intruders — and to raise the alert by touching with a paw and then lying down in a special “alert” posture so the human partner can take appropriate action.

Trained dogs are also used for seizure-alert or seizure-response, which help people with seizure disorders by activating an electronic alert system when symptoms occur. Some can even predict the onset of a seizure!

And certain dogs and other animals have special skills to detect a diabetic’s drop in blood sugar and alert the person before danger occurs. A blood sugar level that drops too low can result in seizure, coma, or even death.

How animals benefit health

Powerful! And be it a dog, bunny, bird, lamb, miniature horse, cat, cow, goat, llama or whatever dear creature you enjoy — if you are a pet owner or enjoy visiting or working with animals — they will help to boost your morale; reduce depression and blood pressure; improve your memory and concentration; and be a treasured source of physical, emotional and mental comfort.

• Increased physical activity. Animals need exercise and research shows that when you own a pet (horse, dog or otherwise), they will get you up and motivate you to move. That walking can help you to meet your recommended daily physical activity of 30 minutes a day at least five times a week. One study found that dog owners, on average, walk 22 minutes more per day compared to those who did not own a dog.

Additionally, the study participants reached what is considered a moderate intensity pace — a noticeable increase in heart and breathing rate. After a long day, you may not be up for heading to the gym or going for a run, but a pet is a great motivator.

Improved heart health. Not only do pets fill your hearts and life with love, they can help your heart tick longer. Studies show that pet ownership can lead to decreased blood pressure, heart rate, stress and cholesterol and triglyceride levels. While the reasons are not 100% clear, it is likely due to the psychological, sociological, and physiological benefits of pet ownership — combined with the increased physical activity often involved with owning a pet.

In fact, the American Heart Association even made an official statement that “owning a dog may protect you from heart disease.” And while dogs are often touted for their health benefits, cat owners can see gains, too. Felines can be just as beneficial to your health as dogs. If you have a cat, research shows that you are less likely to have a heart attack, or to have a cardiovascular incident like a stroke.

Stress and anxiety reduction. Furry, winged, or finned loyal friends that provide unconditional love, affection, and companionship, can also help to dissipate unpleasant feelings or emotions. Animal interaction has been shown to decrease the stress hormone cortisol as well as lower blood pressure. Studies show that time spent connecting with animals, via talking to or the sense of touch, resulted in the reduction of the stress hormone cortisol. And, too, it increased levels of the body’s natural mood-enhancing and pain-relieving chemicals (phenylethylamine and endorphin).

And animals are masters at mindfulness — being in the moment with attention, intention and awareness. When we are facing worries, regrets, or uncertainty, they aid in shifting our focus to the here and now.

Depression. Some say there is no psychiatrist quite like a pet. In addition to boosting endorphins (“feel-good” chemicals in your brain), animals provide social interaction, the benefits of physical contact (which boosts the hormone oxytocin), a level of responsibility and focus and unconditional love. Some experts believe that pets should be considered a main, rather than a marginal, source of support in the management of long-term mental health problems.

Protection Against Allergies. Exposing babies to dog and cat dander DOES NOT increase their risk for developing pet allergies. Studies have shown that having a pet in the home can decrease your children’s risk of allergies, asthma and eczema. When exposed to pet dander early in life, immune systems build up a tolerance to the allergens and are less likely to mount an allergic response.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ). Defined as a measure of empathy and the ability to understand and connect with others, having a pet can be a powerful tool in teaching or enhancing EQ in both adults and children. Emotional intelligence can be cultivated and nurtured. And pets are great teachers when it comes to reading nonverbal cues, since they cannot talk, such as facial expressions, body language and gestures. Furthermore, caring for a pet requires humans to draw themselves away from themselves.

Optimism. Animals have been shown to help patients become more motivated to participate in their treatment or therapy. And pet owners, too, are more likely to have an optimistic view.

The human-animal bond is so important in life with clear benefits for better health. The company of an animal can relax, entertain and motivate — while the benefits of pet ownership go beyond these joys, showing that keeping a pet improves long-term health and well-being of everyone in a household.

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to editor@pressofac.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.

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