Getting a Pet for Health

My partner Aisha and I are seriously thinking about a pet. Science shows that people with pets tend to be healthier and happier, less lonely and more active.

I think I’m looking for a friend. In psychologist Anne Benvenuti’s book Spirit Unleashed, she makes the case that animals are people, too. Their minds are different because their bodies are different, but they think, they feel, they have personalities. If we get to know them, they can open up our appreciation of life in new ways.

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But where to start? What kind of animal might be right for us? We’ve had pets before, mostly rabbits and guinea pigs, occasionally lizards and fish. I don’t know that that’s what we want now, though.

From what I read, cats and dogs make the best companions. According to the Humane Society of the United States, Americans own about 77.8 million dogs and 85.8 million cats. I’ve looked into the health benefits of cats and dogs before and wrote about them here six years ago.

There are some new studies supporting the health benefits of pets, but they seem to disagree about findings. A recent study from the University of Minnesota followed the records of 4,435 people for about 20 years. Researchers found that cat owners had a significantly lower risk of death from heart attack. No significant benefit was seen for dog ownership.

That’s kind of a surprising finding, because earlier studies have shown large health benefits from having dogs. An article on the American Heart Association (AHA) site reports that people with pets are more likely to survive a heart attack, and tended to have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and that people with dogs are more likely to reach the recommended level of physical activity.

Pets help people’s health in numerous ways. Dogs will get you walking. They get you on a schedule (their schedule), and doing things regularly helps with self-management. They might bring you more social contact while you’re out walking them. Being with an animal has been shown to reduce stress hormones and blood pressure. The health benefits are even better if you pet or play with them.

Pets for diabetes
If there is one condition that should benefit from dog ownership, it would be diabetes. The walking, the regular schedule, and the stress reduction should be just what a person with diabetes needs. Not only that, but many dogs can detect when a person’s blood sugar is going low and warn you. Some dogs are trained for this skill, as we wrote about here and here.

Cats won’t do that. They won’t take you for walks or help you meet people. But they do give you friendship and connection, meaning and purpose. The downside of dogs for more frail people is the risk of falls while walking them. If you’re getting a dog, make sure it’s one you can handle.

Dr. Glenn N. Levine, a cardiologist and lead author of a new scientific statement by the AHA on the influence of pets on heart health, says that people should not adopt a pet solely to improve their health. “The primary purpose of pet adoption or rescue should be to provide the pet a loving home and to derive enjoyment from the pet,” he wrote.

That’s what I was thinking. An animal friend wouldn’t replace human friends, but he or she might be a different kind of friend than people can be. Relationships with animals can be good for you. For example, research has shown blood pressure to be lower for pet owners around their pet than around around their spouse.

According to an article on Everyday Health, “Pets can help decrease feelings of loneliness and provide unconditional love, which can be important if you’re feeling down about your diabetes diagnosis. ‘A dog is there to support you in ways your family can’t… You can talk to them endlessly, and they won’t tell you to shut up.'”

Because I’m mostly vegetarian, I’m still thinking about a rabbit. Cats and dogs are carnivores, which means I’d have to be feeding them meat every day. And cats hunt, which means I’d have to keep mine indoors all the time. On the other hand, rabbits will eat your furniture and even your walls and electrical wires, and I don’t know how strong a relationship you can form with them.

But it does seem that if you have diabetes and the strength to walk a dog, you might consider getting one. They’re good for you.

Want to learn more about how animals can help improve health? Read “Diabetes Alert Dogs,” by Marie Rosenthal, MS.