You've had a horrible day. You missed a deadline at work, you got a speeding ticket on the way home and you're starving for dinner. With arms full, you juggle your keys to open the front door, and when you do, a familiar face is waiting for you your dog.
Forever excited upon your arrival, your dog greets you with its eyes wide, tongue flapping and tail wagging. You reach down and playfully pet the soft coat of your canine companion's head, and somehow all the stress of the day begins to melt away.
Many benefits of owning a pet are widely known. They provide joy, loyalty, companionship, love and affection. But it is only recently that the more physical and psychological health benefits of pet ownership have started to be explored and understood.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institute of Health (NIH) states several ways in which living with and caring for a cherished pet can positively affect your health.
Studies have shown that those who own pets have significantly lower systolic blood pressure, triglyceride values and cholesterol levels than those who do not own pets even after accounting for additional exercise and other differences that might be present.
Also, in comparative studies between those with pets and those without them, there was found to be the added benefit to people with pets in that they had less increase in their heart rate and blood pressure when put under stress. Their blood pressure also dropped faster after a stressful event.
A study published in The American Journal of Cardiology found that males who own dogs were significantly less likely to die within one year after a heart attack than those that did not have a dog.
A study reported in 2001 in an issue of Seizure found that dogs could be trained to detect seizures 15 to 45 minutes prior to the episode's beginning. In addition, researchers found that people using these dogs actually had fewer seizures.
Other research supports the theory that dogs have the ability to smell cancer.
A brief report in a 1989 issue of Lancet describes how one dog discovered a cancerous skin tumor on her owner's leg. Researchers say they also have been able to teach bomb-sniffing dogs how to detect cancer using similar training techniques.
A 1999 study in The Journal of the American Geriatric Society looked at nearly 1,000 men and women with an average age of 73 years and found that owning a dog or cat helped them maintain or enhance their activities for daily living.
This includes activities such as walking several blocks, getting into and out of bed, bathing, dressing and preparing meals.
Pet ownership may also be good for your mood. The same 1999 study in The Journal of the American Geriatric Society also found that people in the survey who owned pets and had lower social support in a crisis situation were less likely to experience a decline in psychological well-being when compared to those with lower social support who did not have pets.
According to a 1999 study by researchers at the UCLA School of Public Health, owning a pet may reduce the likelihood that men with AIDS will suffer from symptoms of depression.
Men with AIDS who did not own a pet were about three times more likely to report symptoms of depression than men who did not have AIDS. But, men with AIDS who had pets were only about 50 percent more likely to report symptoms of depression, as compared to men in the study who did not have AIDS.
Owning a pet also has been shown to have social benefits. Although pets themselves are a way for many to cope with the social isolation of living alone, pets may serve as a social lubricant when away from home.
Studies have shown that people walking a dog are far more likely to have interactions and positive encounters with others compared to people walking alone. Pets provided an icebreaker for conversation.
In addition to walks, visiting the vet, shopping in pet stores and attending dog training classes all provide opportunities to meet and talk with other people.
The benefits of pet ownership are many, but they may not be for everyone. Just because a person has heart trouble, AIDS or is depressed, doesn't mean they should run out and buy a pet.
It's important to assess your financial and physical capabilities of caring for a pet before purchasing one. Take the time to research what kind of animal is best suited to your lifestyle and abilities so that you both will be happy and healthy with your decision.
Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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