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We already know that the many physical benefits pets confer onto people work for all ages, whether you’re eight or eighty. If you’re older, a pet can offer you a sense of well being, a sense of encouragement, and even a reason for living. Being responsible for another life can add new meaning to your own life, and having to care for and provide a loving home to a companion animal can also help you remain active and healthy.
When examining the relationship between pet ownership and health, it is helpful to first consider the mechanisms through which we believe the effect might work. For example, do pets promote health through companionship and emotional support; do they encourage healthy behavior; or is there something else about them that could improve mental or physical health? Understanding these mechanisms is vital for understanding how pets might impact health so that we can translate findings into broader public health policy.
Given the right animal, people, and circumstances, pets can indeed serve as “therapists.” In animal-assisted therapy programs, a companion animal may visit with hospital or nursing home patients. For the program to be safe and effective, the animal must be carefully screened and the pet’s caregiver must be trained to guide the animal-human interactions. When a specific therapy is desired, a credentialed professional should monitor the program. Even in less formal animal – assisted activities, where the animal is introduced to an individual or group with no specific therapeutic goal, patients and staff often experience improved morale and communication.
Companion animals may improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and regulating the heart rate during stressful situations. In a 2002 study, researchers measured changes in heart rate and blood pressure among people who had a dog or cat, compared to those who did not, when participants were under stress (performing a timed math task). People with a dog or cat had lower resting heart rates and blood pressure measures at the beginning of the experiment than non-pet owners. People with a dog or cat were also less likely to have spikes in heart rates and blood pressure while performing the math task, and their heart rates and blood pressure returned to normal more also made fewer errors in their math when their pet was present in the room.4 All these findings indicated that having a dog or cat lowered the risk of heart disease, as well as lowering stress so that performance improved.