Fido Becoming a Heart’s Best Friend

People who own pets will usually swear by their pets’ abilities to help them heal. Up until recently, most would have thought this idea to be a type of placebo effect; people who owned pets didn’t physically heal from their ailments but only believed that healing had occurred. Today, however, studies are beginning to show that simply spending time with a dog or cat may actually lead to better health, particularly in those with cardiovascular disease (CVD).

Benefits of Pets

For people who enjoy the presence of an animal, pets can have a positive influence in both mental and physical health. These effects can be of particular importance for senior citizens. Owning an animal can provide companionship for some and can help in creating a form of identity after retirement. People who own and love animals can reach out and find other people who have a similar identity.1 If someone must stay at home for medical reasons, an animal can provide company. In a study of senior citizens receiving assistance, each of them had a close relationship with their companion animal and many reported that they could confide easier with their animal than with another person.1

Owning a pet, particularly a dog, can also provide health benefits to those who have CVD. The American Heart Association (AHA) states that “pet ownership is an important nonhuman form of social support and may provide cardioprotective benefits in patients with established CVD.” Through their own studies, the AHA found that, of all pets, dogs help to positively influence levels of human physical activity, reducing obesity and the chances of developing CVD and other illnesses. As well as helping people stay active, people with pets had lower resting heart rates as well as faster recovery from stressful life events.2

Animal Assisted Therapy

Adopting an animal and bringing them into your home is never an easy task. People who have shared their household with at least one pet in their lifetime could attest to the responsibility needed in maintaining an animal’s health. Someone who is elderly and unable to provide proper care for an animal can now turn to Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT). A relatively new field started in the early 1990’s, AAT uses animals to help patients and has started to gain wider acceptance in medical fields. It is important to note, though, that animals used in AAT are not service animals and are not protected by the American Disabilities Act. Instead, they work with both professionals and clients.3 According to Cynthia Chandler, Ed.D, a counseling professor at the University of North Texas, the Center for Animal-Assisted Therapy’s founder and director and the author of Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, therapy animals are used with therapists to help patients with a multitude of goals, including social and caring skills, anxiety and depression.3

While therapy animals have helped patients to participate in group therapy and reduce depression for elderly patients with dementia, perhaps the most important aspect is helping patients with stress. After spending just 20 minutes with a therapy dog, patients showed a significant drop in stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and aldosterone and an increase in health and social inducing hormones like oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins.3

The presence of animals, particularly dogs, is shown help the elderly and their hearts. However, the AHA emphasizes that while having a pet may be associated with a reduction in CVD, a person’s reason for adopting an animal should not be only to prevent CVD from occurring.  

References:

1.    Hart, Lynette A. The Role of Pets in Enhancing Human Well-Being: Effects for Older People. Retrieved August 14, 2014 from the Pet Partners library on website: http://www.petpartners.org/document.doc?id=319.