Health Benefits of Pets – Part 2!
April 27, 2016
The earliest evidence of pet ownership dates back to about 12,000 years ago; a human skeleton was found in Israel buried with a six month old wolf pup. While we have benefited from the human-animal bond for thousands of years, science has only recently begun to describe, study, and utilize it. As mental health is finally starting to be treated with as much attention and concern as physical health, animals have the potential to treat countless disorders and positively impact millions of lives. This research could fill a book, but we’ll start by briefly describing a few common examples:
Depression, Anxiety, & PTSD
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 16 million people in the US alone suffer from depression, 3 million suffer from anxiety, and 3 million suffer from PTSD. In combination with traditional methods such as therapy and medication, pets can provide unconditional love and reduce feelings of loneliness. Furthermore, research shows that the human-animal bond increases levels of oxytocin, which reduces anxiety and depression.
Older adults stand to gain even more from pets due to declines in health, social support, and mobility. As loved ones die, animals may substitute for lost relationships and provide stress relief. Elderly pet owners are usually more active as well, perhaps due to the idea that a pet depends on the owner to take care of them. Nursing homes have long been using therapy animals to provide emotional support and boost morale, especially in patients with dementia and cognitive decline. Service dogs can ease anxiety caused by confusion in those with Alzheimer’s, and can even be trained to open cupboard doors to remind a person to feed themselves or the pet!
As children, pets are some of our first friends and confidants, because kids often feel more comfortable sharing secrets and private thoughts with animals than with people. In addition, pet ownership teaches kids about life (reproduction, birth, illnesses, accidents, death, and bereavement), the responsibility of caring for others, and a respect for living things. In addition, children performed better in a match to sample categorization test in the presence of an animal or stuffed animal.
These benefits are more pronounced in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). In one study, children with ASD interacted (talking, eye contact, and physical contact) more with adults and peers in the presence of guinea pigs. A growing number of parents are turning to ASD therapy dogs to provide calming effect during tantrums or emotional outbursts, recognize and interrupt repetitive behaviors, and bark when a child may be wandering off.
Those undergoing treatments or hospitalization for chronic illness, such as cancer, are at increased risk for depression and feelings of isolation, but research shows these patients may benefit emotionally from interaction with their own pets or therapy animals. Fibromyalgia patients and patients hospitalized following total joint arthroplasty reported lower pain levels and overall better moods when provided access to therapy animals. In addition, therapy animals improved motivation and optimism in pediatric cancer patients.
Bonus: Some dogs are trained to sniff out various cancers! Tumors give off odors called volatile organic compounds, which can be secreted in the breath, sweat, or urine. Dogs can be trained to detect these odors in the same way they are trained to smell bombs or narcotics.
Contributed by Rachel Meyer, vet assistant at Grand Avenue Veterinary Center