Diabetes Self-Management Blog

They say pet ownership protects health and improves quality of life. If that’s true, what kind of pet should you have? A dog, a cat, a fish, or what? I’m sure you’ve been wondering. Recent studies give us some leads.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) are all over the benefits of dogs. An article on their Web site reports on a study looking at “421 adults who’d suffered heart attacks. A year later…dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.”

NIH likes cats, too. They funded a study of 240 married couples and found, “Those who owned a pet [cat or dog] were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than those without pets.”

Where do the benefits come from? According to Holistic Online, “Pets provide their owners with unconditional love and loyalty. In return, the experience of caring for the animal imparts a sense of belonging and opportunities for play and amusement. Relationships with animals are largely free of the threats and responsibilities inherent in human relationships.”

Physiological tests, they say, have shown that “Cuddling a pet or even just watching one calms you down and lowers your blood pressure. A pet can also give an older person who lives alone a new leash on life” [groan].

Dogs Versus Cats
Between dogs and cats, the benefits of dogs have been better studied. Elderly dog owners can often walk faster than those without dogs, probably because of the practice they get walking their pets. Walking a dog also brings contact with other people, which is beneficial to health.

Dogs may be particularly valuable for people with diabetes. According to Holistic Online, the great diabetes pioneer Dr. Elliot Joslin pointed out that a dog is always ready to go for a walk with you [and might make that walk safer.] Joslin also famously said that, “A dog will never lap up some delicious dish that isn’t on your diet and then proceed to tell you how fabulous it was — the way some people do.”

Dogs have saved people with diabetes’ lives. Faithful dogs sometimes bark for hours to bring attention to owners who have passed out from hypos. According to Mayo Clinic writers Nancy Klobassa, RN, and Peggy Moreland, RN, there are diabetes service dogs trained to pick up and carry objects such as juice bottles, retrieve cordless phones, test breath for low or high blood sugar, act as a brace to help a person get up after having fallen.” This behavior could help prevent and deal with hypoglycemia.

An organization called Dogs4Diabetics trains diabetes service dogs and makes them available. One of their customers said, “The best part is that when [my dog] helps me, she’s non-judgmental.”

What About Cats?
Cats have some of the same psychological benefits as dogs. Cat enthusiasts wrote on Catsplay.com: “Every cat owner knows the benefits of petting a cat. It’s relaxing, the stresses of the day disappear, the blood pressure drops, and the heart rate slows.”

A study by University of Minnesota scientists reported in 2008 that cat owners have 30% less risk of dying from heart attack or than those without cats. Dogs had less protective effect, but there may not have been enough dog owners in the study to draw firm conclusions.

This study was controversial, with some scientists advocating for dogs and others for cats. A study in American Journal of Cardiology in 1995, found that while dog owners had a higher chance of surviving a heart attack, cat owners had a reduced chance of survival! Director of the division of cardiology at the University of Miami, Dr Robert Myerburg, said this might be because “many people are allergic to cats, and not to dogs.”

Some veterinary experts take a different view. According to Medical News Today, “Lawrence McGill, veterinary pathologist at ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City, said [cats might protect against heart attack death] because cats are lap animalsthat want to be petted, and it is the petting that brings down the stress levels, and heart rate and blood pressure too, in many cases.”

“On the other hand,” said McGill, “dogs need hands on attention, which could actually raise the owner’s stress. When you get home from work the dog demands attention, you have to take it for a walk, dogs need to be fed according to a routine, whereas cats can practically take care of themselves.”

As I was writing this, Aisha was reading over my shoulder and asked, “What’s all this about dogs and cats? What about rabbits? What about guinea pigs?”

Good point, babe. If it’s the petting that helps, smaller mammals might be just as good for you as the big two. They just haven’t been studied.

According to the Smart Heart Web site, “several studies have demonstrated that pet owners [in general] tend to have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels than non-pet owners, and are therefore at a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease… In recognition of this connection between pets and heart health, some insurance companies have even started offering lower life insurance rates for pet owners.” Good deal!

So what animal is best for you? You can find out more and even become involved through the Delta Society, the “Human–Animal Health Connection.”

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