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Why pets are good for your health

Tags: Stress

Why pets are good for your healthIf you've brought a pet for Christmas, remember that, although caring for a furry friend is a big (and long-term) commitment, it can pay dividends in health benefits for you and your family, says psychologist Judi James.

But if you're prepared to put up with the highs and lows of pet ownership, the physical and mental health benefits you'll get in return will far outweigh any downsides.

Pets lower your stress levels

Lots of studies have found that owning a pet can help you deal with stress better. Whether it's a dog that needs a walk or a cat that won't get off your lap, a pet will force you to switch off from worrying about work, paying the bills or coping with family pressures.

Unconditional love
However bad your day has been, if you own a dog, you'll have someone who thinks you're fantastic to shower you with unconditional love. Cats will love you too, although they can be less demonstrative. However, cats like to sit on your lap for long periods of time, meaning you are forced to relax.

Calming effect
US research shows that pet owners have significantly lower blood pressures and heart rates than non-pet owners

Cat owners have a lower stroke risk
Research by the University of Minnesota concludes that owning a cat can significantly lower your risk of suffering a stroke. They interviewed more than 4,000 patients and found the non-cat owners were 30 to 40 per cent more likely to have suffered a stroke than owners of dogs and other pets.

The researchers admit they are puzzled why dog ownership doesn't appear to confer the same benefits as owning a cat. 

Pets help you deal better with pain

A 1995 Australian study revealed that pet owners are less likely to visit their doctors than those who don't have pets.

It could be partly due to the lower blood pressure and heart rates associated with owning a cat or a dog, but other studies have also shown that pet ownership can make you more able to deal with pain.

One Chicago University study found that stroking a dog could halve the amount of painkillers needed by a patient recovering from a joint replacement operation.
Other research has found that women coped better with the pain and fear of breast cancer if they owned a cat or a dog (the benefits were greater than if they had the support of a loving husband!).

People who own a dog have also been shown to recover more quickly after surgery. 

Pets can boost your mental health

Pets help ward off feelings of loneliness and isolation, and keep depression at bay too. Whether it's getting out to walk the dog, chatting to other dog owners or just talking to your cat at home, pets make great companions and help you feel more engaged with the world.

These health benefits even extend to owning a budgie. Researchers who studied two groups of pensioners, who were given either a pot plant or a budgie to care for, found that after two years the budgie owners were more socially engaged. 

Living with a pet may cut cancer risk

Pet ownership has been shown to cut the risk of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, by 30 per cent, according to a study by the University of California. The longer you've lived with a cat or dog, the greater protection you have. 

Dog owners get less coughs and colds

Saliva tests on children found that those in homes with dogs had higher concentrations of an antibody called Imunnoglobin A, which helps fight off coughs and colds, and took less time off school for sickness. 

Can owning a pet damage your health?

There are two main health risks - allergies and the transmission of infections.

Allergies
The charity Allergy UK says pets are the second most important cause of allergies in the home, with 50 per cent of asthmatic children sensitised to cats and 40 per cent to dog allergens. Rabbits, hamsters and other furry domestic pets can also trigger allergies in these children. Some studies show that children who grow up in homes with pets have more severe symptoms than those in homes without pets; other studies have suggested that growing up in a home with pets may have a protective effect. However, if your child has eczema, hay fever or asthma, Allergy UK says removing pets from the home is best, even if there is no obvious allergy to them at present.

Transmission of infections
Research has shown that pets can carry diseases like salmonella, campylobacter and the superbug MRSA, so pet owners have been discouraged from allowing their animals to sleep in bedrooms.

Good hand hygiene and regular pet grooming and bathing can help minimise the risk of pets transmitting diseases.

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