Parenting

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The Healing Power of Pets

By Tyler Ward

From taking away your stress with a loving lick to keeping you on the move by playing and going on walks, companion pets like dogs and cats are wonderful for helping to maintain your physical and mental health.

Whether it’s playing with a pooch or petting a purring kitty, there’s no doubt that pets can bring their owners (young and old) plenty of joy. But the advantages of pet ownership go well beyond the fact that they’re cuddly and lots of fun. If you’ve been wondering whether this is the right time to add a four-legged (or two-winged or multi-finned) companion, here are a few of the ways getting a pet can improve your health and well-being. Already have one? Then curl up with your furry family member and read on to get confirmation of what you already know.

Increase self-esteem
Research shows that kids with family pets have higher self-esteem. Why? Probably because they have a four-legged (or two-legged) creature to love that loves them right back, and a friend to talk to and play with when no one else is around.

Pets can also boost confidence by easing social isolation. Rejection can sting, but it eases when you’re greeted with a wagging tail. And science confirms pets help our sense of belonging. One study found that pet owners reported having higher self-esteem, felt more conscientious, and even bounced back faster from social rejection. No wonder dogs are considered man’s best friend (and woman’s too!).

tk-pets1Boost immune system
Believe it or not, just petting a dog may be enough to keep that pesky cold away. Reported benefits to overall health include a boost, particularly to the immune system for those who were asked to pet dogs (as opposed to those asked to pet stuffed animals or nothing at all).

Decrease anxiety, pain and depression
Pet therapy, or animal-assisted therapy (AAT), has been linked to the reduction of anxiety, pain and depression in people with a range of mental or physical health problems. Those who could benefit from pet therapy include patients undergoing chemotherapy, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and physical therapy patients working on their fine motor skills. Even some academic institutions are taking note.

At Miami University, students can participate in pet therapy sessions that alleviate feelings of homesickness and depression. Dogs are “on call” during midterms and finals, when those feelings are at an all-time high.

Decrease stress
Yes, we know our pets can make us happier, but research shows that interacting with dogs can actually help reduce stress. Even something as simple as playing fetch or petting your pup can lower the production of cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone, and increase the level of the feel-good hormone oxytocin in your brain (oxytocin is linked to emotional bonding).

Gently petting an animal can help to relax and reduce stress levels in both the human and animal. It is believed that an animal’s heart rate slows down and blood pressure drops along with a person’s because of the release of oxytocin.

The human-animal bond is also a natural mood enhancer. Pet parents are generally happier and less lonely, and tend to be more trusting. Companion pets can also give you a sense of meaning and boost self-esteem, and simply playing with them or having a snuggle session can provide positive mental energy, by raising serotonin and dopamine levels while decreasing cortisol.

Stress and addiction affect the brain in similar ways, so battling one generally means battling the other. The stresses of life can trigger cravings or a relapse, so it’s vital to keep calm. Getting close to a pet is a great way to combat stress.

But it’s not just dogs that can make their owners feel good. The softtk-pets2 fur of a cat or rabbit, the smooth scales of a snake or lizard, or the feathers of a loving parrot all feel wonderful to touch. Stroking and cuddling a pet helps you calm down quickly by lowering your pulse and heart rate.

James Bowen, author of the international bestseller A Street Cat Named Bob, credits his faithful feline companion with saving his life. Could a pet save yours?

Decrease blood pressure
High blood pressure might sound like a concern that’s only for people in their golden years, but in fact everyone can benefit from keeping their numbers in check. “The simple act of petting an animal is known to cause a person’s blood pressure to drop,” says Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University. We like to think that means we’re that much closer to getting a prescription for dog snuggles.

According to the American Heart Association, there is a link between contact with a pet (especially dogs) and a reduced risk for heart disease and greater longevity. The National Institute of Health’s review of heart-related studies on people who have pets, showed that pet owners had decreased levels of cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure, all of which may minimize risk of a heart attack in the future.

Can help with autism or ADHD
It is common among children with autism to have sensory issues that can make it a challenge for them to interact with people. Animals tend to have a magical ability to easily hold the attention of children with autism, and so are recruited to assist with life-changing activities. A part of sensory integration activities helps children get used to the way something feels against their skin, such as the feel of a horse or the coat of a dog, which can provide a calming sensation. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can benefit from working with and even adopting a companion pet (with permission and supervision of a parent). Among the benefits: Having a pet is a great way for the child to release energy; caring for a pet on a regular schedule helps a child with ADHD learn to be responsible and the bond between a companion pet and a child is so strong and loving that children with ADHD learn about self-esteem.

Interact with others
Pets can help you with your social life! This is particularly true for dog parents, because dogs get them going on walks and playing at the public park. People seem more inclined to talk if you have a dog with you, and the topic of dogs is an excellent icebreaker. Having an interest in animals is a great way to connect with others in social situations and may even help those who have an issue with social awkwardness. Not ready to meet new pet people in person?

Go online to social networking sites such as www.petpop.com, www.dogster.com or www.catster.com, or join Facebook groups that are focused specifically on pets.

Tyler Ward is a communications intern with the Canadian Abilities Foundation.

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