"The Pet Prescription"

by Dr. Mehmet Oz

(from "O" Magazine -

April 2012)

 

Having an animal in your home is great for your heart - and your waistline, your immunity, your blood vessels ....

 

When I come home after a long day at the hospital or the studio, the greeting I get from my black Lab, Rosie - her whole body wiggling with happiness - always makes me smile, no matter how exhausted I feel.  In our household, animals outnumber humans:  We also have a rabbit, five hamsters, three cats (who spend a great deal of their time peering inquisitively at the hamsters), and two tropical fish.  I admit I sometimes feel like a zookeeper.  But even when the litter box needs cleaning or I have to coax my son, Oliver, to go outside and walk Rosie before bedtime, I can honestly say I'm happy to share my home with all 12 creatures.

 

If you've ever loved a pet, you know the kind of joy animals can bring.  But I'm especially excited about the mounting evidence that they can improve our physical well-being, too.  (Former president of the Mayo Clinic staff, Edward Creagan, MD, is so convinced of the healing powers of pets, he has literally prescribed them for a third of his cancer patients.)  Here's a look at how your health might benefit from an animal companion.

 

1.  REDUCED RISK OF ALLERGIES, ASTHMA, ECZEMA.  People with allergies produce antibodies - which can cause inflammation in the airways (asthma) or skin (eczema) - in response to irritants like dander and saliva.  But exposure to a pet during infancy may mean less chance of developing such reactions in adulthood - possibly, scientists speculate, because the immune system becomes desensitized to allergens.  What's more impressive is that this immune-stabilizing effect appears to begin before birth.  A 2008 study showed that prenatal pet exposure lowers allergic antibody production in the umbilical cord.

 

2.  LOWER BLOOD PRESSURE.  The simple act of petting an animal - or even gazing at an aquarium - results in a drop in blood pressure.  And pets can have a longer-term impact on the cardiovascular system, too, as researchers discovered when they tracked 24 hypertensive stockbrokers who adopted a cat or dog.  Pet ownership blunted the blood pressure response to mental stress; the traditionally prescribed hypertension drug did not.

 

3.  A STRONGER HEART.  Researchers who followed 369 heart attack survivors in the landmark Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial found that dog owners had only a 1 percent chance of dying within a year, compared with a 7 percent chance for subjects who didn't have a dog.  A newer study, from 2009, found that people who had owned a cat at some point in their lives were 37 percent less likely to die of a heart attack than those who hadn't.

 

4.  IMPROVED FITNESS.  A 2011 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health revealed that dog owners were 34 percent more likely to complete the recommended minimum 150 minutes of exercise per week.  Other research has shown that dog owners walk 19 more minutes a week on average, and that having a family dog increases physical activity among adolescents (a key finding as childhood obesity reaches epidemic proportions).

 

5.  GREATER CALM FOR ALZHEIMER'S PATIENTS - and their families.  Much of the burden of this disease (which afflicts one in eight people 65 and older) falls on patients' relatives, and I've seen it crush the spirit of even the most loving caretakers.  But studies have revealed that Alzheimer's patients have fewer anxious outbursts if an animal is present and research shows that caregivers can feel less burdened as well, especially if the animal is a cat (perhaps because cats require little additional care).  A study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research found that even pet fish can help by facilitating healthy weight gain among Alzheimer's patients who often suffer from a lack of adequate nutrition.  In the presence of an aquarium patients who paced tended to sit still longer, while patients who were typically lethargic became more attentive.  Both effects led to better eating at mealtimes.

 

Not everyone can bring home a furry or aquatic friend, of course.  But if life circumstances (like long hours or a persnickety landlord) keep you from owning a pet, you can still expereince health perks of animals by volunteering with rescues in dire need of affection.  Go to petfinder.com to look up shelters near you.

"Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened."

           Anatole France

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

         Mahatma Gandhi

"I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source."

                  Doris Day

"Dogs are the closest we come to knowing the divine love of God on this side of eternity.  They love me all the time, no matter what.  Their love, companionship and loyalty are why I have such deep faith in God.  They are God's love in cute, chubby bodies.  Dogs are umbilical.  Dogs are first responders.  Dogs never betray you or hurt your feelings."

    Anne Lamott, author