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Vitamin P: How Pets Keep Us Healthy

When you're sick as a dog, sometimes a canine or feline is the best medicine. 

Many are the times I’ve suffered in bed with the flu, hoping my cat, Magnolia, would magically develop the ability to make me some soup or draw me a hot bath. Of course, all she really does is sit there and look cute and sometimes nudge me with her nose, lest she miss even a minute of my affection. Lying there achy and feverish and miserable, I’ve asked her, “What do you do for me?” 

It turns out she does quite a lot just by being there. Studies repeatedly show that pets, especially dogs and cats, are a boon to our well-being for the ways they reduce stress, build immunity, and help us lead healthier lifestyles. Though the pet-owner relationship may seem to go only one way, our animals actually do a lot to care for us, too. 

Pets Are the Best Medicine
In 1987, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched the first workshop on the health benefits of owning pets. One study focused on the role of chemistry in the relationship, showing that when we interact with our pets, our central nervous system releases hormones that create a sense of well-being. One in particular, oxytocin, is a major bonding hormone that calms us and gives us feelings of warmth. Oxytocin is also released during breastfeeding to cement the bond between mother and child, and comes into play whenever we share physical contact with another person or animal. The hormone helps to lower our stress levels, thereby warding off stress-related illnesses, and generally improves our mood. Hugs really do heal, and pets are great for cuddling. 

Even before the NIH study, though, humans have availed themselves of the calming effects animals have on them. For decades, therapy animals, also known as comfort animals, have aided the ill, elderly, and disabled. Simply by allowing a sick person to pet and play with them, therapy animals help lower blood pressure and reduce pain. More and more, occupational and physical therapists are using therapy animals to treat autistic children, with great results. Therapy horses, dogs, and dolphins, to name a few, help calm the hypersensitivity that afflicts those with autistic spectrum disorders, many of whom can’t stand to be touched except by animals. 

Animals’ role in modern medicine is expanding as well. For example, over the past decade, much research has focused on dogs’ ability to detect cancer. One such study, published in the March 2006 issue of the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies and conducted by the Pine Street Foundation, a cancer research organization in San Anselmo, California, provided compelling evidence that dogs can smell the differential waste products of cancer on a person’s breath. In the study, ordinary household dogs with minimal training were able to distinguish accurately between breath samples of cancer patients and those of healthy subjects. The same researchers are now looking into dogs’ potential to detect cancer in urine samples. 

Live and Love Like an Animal
Animals can improve the health of all pet owners, even owners without any disabilities. Most animals lead healthy lifestyles, untainted by bad human habits like sedentary jobs and fast-food drive-throughs. Dogs and even some cats run, jump, and play. They eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’ve had enough. They get all the rest they need and they understand the importance of creating and maintaining bonds with others. 

If you have a dog, chances are you’re walking him or her at least twice a day, giving your body the exercise it needs. And if you take your dog to a dog park, you’re more likely to socialize with other dog owners, another important factor in stress reduction. Many dog owners find that their pets are potent matchmakers, too. Picture it: two animal lovers get their leashes tangled and live happily ever after, slurping pasta Lady and the Tramp-style for the rest of their days. 

Dirty Dogs
Animals also aren’t afraid of dirt, and they pick up microorganisms that they then share with their owners. That might not sound like a good thing, but it is. Especially early in life, our immune systems build antibodies to correspond with our environment. The more exposure we get when we’re young, the more antibodies against viruses and bacteria we build and the less likely we are to suffer from allergies, asthma, and other illnesses as adults. Magnolia can’t make me soup when I have the flu, but she can help strengthen my immune system so that I get sick less often. 

Pets Care for You, Too
When most people consider adopting pets, they think about how much care animals need. It is a lot of work to feed pets, clean up after them, and take them to the vet—so why do we do it all? Because our pets care for us, too; they improve both the length and the quality of our lives. Even if you don’t (or can’t) have a pet of your own, try spending time with a friend’s dog or cat to reap some of these benefits. You can even treat yourself to some of the health bonuses by merely living as if you own a pet by going for regular walks, socializing, and getting dirty (not necessarily in that order). The likelihood is that you’ll find yourself leading a healthier, happier life, for which you can thank your furry friends.

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