Going to the dogs can result in health and happiness

An annual tradition in our household is watching the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
For two nights each February we’re riveted to the television to see whether the pug, poodle, Pekingese or Papillon will win “Best in Show.” Or the beagle, boxer, bulldog , Border Collie or Bernese Mountain Dog. Then again it could be the year for the corgi, Cavalier, Chihuahua or Chinese Crested to triumph.

With 2,711 dogs and 192 breeds showcased this year, there were lots of options. Two new breeds entered the field– the wirehaired vizsla and coton de Tulear. And there was even one I can’t pronounce: xoloitzcuitli!
Although this annual event is centered on dogs, it actually brings up quite a few aspects of human behavior – competition, perseverance and civility, to name a few. And anything that has to do with the appreciation of pets definitely goes into my description of “living life fully.”

It wasn’t always this way. When I was growing up, our family never had any major pets. We were told this was due to my mom’s allergies. So, we had goldfish and turtles. It wasn’t quite the same, though, when it came to “show and tell.”
As a child I was afraid of dogs. And, to use a phrase of my mom’s, we didn’t actually know how to “do dogs.” Now, I can’t imagine myself without one!

As many of you pet lovers will attest, our furry ones bring so much to our lives. Of course, they also bring responsibility. But that’s a small price to pay for unconditional love and present moment living. In addition to being a shoulder to cry on, an alarm clock and an exercise partner, pets can even help us get dates! Who knew?? ## Heart Attacks The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes for Health (NIH) have reported that pet owners exhibit decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels – all of which can minimize their risk for a heart attack.

Stress Reduction Pets provide a 24/7 emotional support system. A study at the State University of New York at Buffalo concluded that when conducting a stressful task, people experienced less stress when their pets were with them than when a spouse, family member or close friend was nearby. Many addiction centers and rehabilitation facilities greatly encourage the use of therapy dogs. ## Blood Pressure Having a pet has the potential to lower blood pressure, especially in hypertensive patients, according to the CDC. Veterinarian Marty Becker, author of “Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual,” explains that a lot of it has to do with reducing stress. “You might lose your job, your house and your 401(k) – but you’ll never lose the unconditional love of your pet.”

Anxiety Pets can be good medicine for those dealing with chronic pain like arthritis or migraines. “Just like Valium, they reduce anxiety,” says Dr. Becker. “The less anxiety, the less pain.”

Diabetes The American Diabetes Association has reported one-third of the pets living with diabetics (mostly dogs, but also cats, birds and rabbits) changed their behavior when their owner’s blood sugar level dropped — a reaction to chemical changes in the owner’s body. This has resulted in organizations like Dogs4Diabetics, which trains dogs for patients at risk.

Allergies and Immune Systems It may seem counterintuitive, but a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology shows children exposed to animals actually tend to develop stronger immune systems. Dr. James Gern of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has conducted studies that conclude having a pet can lower a child’s likelihood of developing allergies by as much as 33 percent. Dr. Becker also weighs in on increased immune systems. “A study found that children ages 5 to 7 from pet-owning households attend school three weeks more per year than those who don’t have pets,” he says. “Kids who grow up on farms and around animals don’t have allergies. That dander is natural immunotherapy.” Becker notes, however, that the effect is not reversible in adults who already have allergies. ##Strokes Cats can be beneficial to our health, too. “If you have a cat, you’re 30 percent less likely to have a heart attack and 40 percent less likely to have a stroke,” Dr. Becker says. Pets can also aid in the recovery of a heart attack. “If you have a heart attack and you have a dog, you’re significantly more likely to be alive a year later.”

Move over, Internet matchmaking services – a pet is a natural conversation starter! And for children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), taking care of a pet can encourage them to focus. Holding and petting an animal can be soothing for children with autism, as well as those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Weight Loss Dogs can be the perfect personal trainers since they need to be walked several times a day. An NIH study of more than 2,000 adults found that owners who walk their dogs have greater energy and are less likely to be obese.

Mood Improvement Pets are a great way to beat the blues, increase self-esteem and give their owners a sense of purpose. They provide companionship – combating loneliness and boosting overall mood — particularly with sick and elderly populations who may be receiving Animal-assisted Therapy (AAT) and Pet-facilitated Therapy (PFT), as reported by the Animal Planet network. Many long-term care facilities use these programs. “People who have pets are less harried; there’s more laughter in their lives,” says Dr. Becker. “When you come home … it’s like you’re a star.” Studies on PTSD at Walter Reed Army Medical Center show pets are helping soldiers to re-enter society. “Those who have a pet have someone they’re responsible for, someone who cares about them.”

The Downside In the “all good things must come to an end” category, our pets eventually leave us. And all of us who have lost a pet know just how painful that can be. Our furry friends are such special spirits. And when we lose them, we need help filling that hole in our soul. Everyone deals with this in his or her own way.

In my experience, though, the benefits of pet ownership definitely outweigh the risk of their eventual departures in terms of health, happiness and heart space!