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Pets Shown to Improve Mental Health

If you acquired a pet for companionship during the coronavirus quarantine, our family practice doctors want you to know you’ve not only helped an animal. You’ve also taken a step toward better mental health, according to one new study, published last month in the journal PLOS One.

Between March and June of this year, researchers from the University of York and the University of Lincoln in the U.K. surveyed 6,000 adults who had at least one pet. More than 90 percent of respondents said their pet helped them cope better emotionally during the lockdown. And 96 percent said their pet helped them stay fit and physically active.

Curiously, it did not seem to matter whether the pet was a dog, a cat, a small mammal or fish.

“We . . . discovered in this study the strength of the emotional bond with pets did not statistically differ by animal species, meaning that people in our sample felt on average as emotionally close to, for example, their guinea pig as they felt to their dog,” Dr. Elena Ratschen of the Department of Health Sciences University of York said in a statement.

Negatively, 68 percent of respondents also said they were more worried about the animal due to the pandemic. People were concerned whether it could receive adequate veterinary care, food, or exercise during the quarantine. Or what would happen to their pet if they themselves became ill.


Pets benefit the body, as well

Other studies have demonstrated the correlation of pets and mental health benefits, but also show significant physical benefits as well.

Pet owners have been found to have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and lower triglycerides than non-pet owners. And they recover faster after surgery. Pets have also been found to lessen anxiety and boost immunity.

And for children exposed to pet cats and dogs, or even farm animals, the health benefits include lower risk of allergies, asthma, and eczema.

Adults benefit too, in many ways. Patients with AIDS are far less likely to be depressed if they have a pet. And those suffering from Alzheimer’s have been shown to have fewer outbursts of anxiety, agitation, and aggression if they have regular access to an animal. Patients with heart failure begin to walk sooner and farther when walking with a therapy dog.


Reinforcing earlier studies

Although specifically focused on the pandemic, the U.K. survey reinforced others. This included a large study done in Sweden in 2017, which showed the benefits of pet ownership. That study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, tracked more than 3.4 million middle-aged and older adults in Sweden for 12 years.

It found that dog owners who lived alone were 11 percent less likely to die of heart disease. And they were 33 percent less likely to die of any cause than comparable non-dog owners. The study focused exclusively on dog ownership in Sweden, which may have skewed the results somewhat. In the country’s colder climate, guardians are forced to take their indoor animals out for daily walks, as opposed to letting them run free in their yards.

“We know that dog owners in general have a higher level of physical activity, which could be one explanation to the observed results,” said Tove Fall, an associate professor in epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden, in discussing the findings.

The study authors also surmised that since dogs aren’t exactly sanitary, they bring in all kinds of outdoor dirt and germs. This positively impacts humans’ “bacterial microbiome,” the so-called “good” microbes that reside in the gut. Finally, a dog offers more of a chance to interact with people during walks. This increases your social contacts, which has been shown to reduce stress levels.

But what about cats? Another earlier study by the Minnesota Stroke Institute followed more than 4,000 cat owners for 10 years. It showed that those who kept cats significantly decreased the chance of dying from heart disease. Another found that cat owners had a decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases, including stroke and heart attack.


Consider the animals, as well

One researcher, however, cautioned that people should not adopt pets unless they recognize that the relationship is a two-way street.

“It is important that everyone appreciates their pet’s needs, too, as our other work shows failing to meet these can have a detrimental effect for both people and their pets,” study co-author Professor Daniel Mills, of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said in a statement.

We would add that you consider all the requirements of owning a pet—financial as well as time investments—before acquiring one. There’s little point in adopting an animal that will end up adding to your stress in the long run.

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