Recently my wife Mindy stumbled across an National Institutes of Health article about pet ownership and health. It discussed the multiple ways that pets of different types can improve our health. Pets have the ability to affect both our mental and physical health. (Full disclosure: I am a dog person. Cats are great, fish are great, whatever, but dogs are my number one.)

Stress reduction is a known effect that we get from animals; they help us lower cortisol (our stress hormone) and also help us lower blood pressure. We are less lonely, feel better and they give us social support. Therapy dogs are good examples of this. We have all seen the news reports of the happy, tail-wagging golden retriever visiting the nursing home or the hospital. What we don’t see is the reduction in stress and anxiety that they provide these patients. 

Animals are also showing promise in kids that have some challenges, those on the autism spectrum and with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder specifically. Kids with ADHD who read to a dog had better social skills and fewer behavioral problems among other social improvements. Kids along the autism spectrum who spent time with guinea pigs had decreased anxiety, were more engaged and had better interactions. 

Animals have also been shown to help teens manage Type 1 diabetes. I found it interesting that diabetic teens, when given a fish and a caretaking routine that included changing tank water/cleaning weekly, were more disciplined about checking blood glucose levels than diabetic teens who had no fish responsibilities and had to review their glucose levels with their parents. 

Pets are a great way to teach responsibility, but that also means they ARE a responsibility. They need to be cleaned, whether it’s their cage, tank or kennel. Some need brushed. All need fed appropriately; many need vaccinated. If you have young kids, they need to be trained how not to injure the pets but also how not to trigger an attack. If you have a pet that gets walked, you need to pick up after it (unfortunately this is my job). I do recommend that if you or a family member has allergies, use a friend’s pet to see if they cause any issues. Lastly, if you are pregnant, don’t clean the cat litter yourself; cats transmit toxoplasmosis through their feces which can cause serious complications to the baby.

So, if you are up to the challenge, go find your pet, make it your best friend and you will find it gives you some reduced stress and better sense of well-being. 

Turn off the TV (especially if it’s news) and go walk your dog!

Have a great week, and be healthier today than you were yesterday!


Do you have a health topic for the doctor to explore? Email [email protected].

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