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The Stress-Busting Power of Pets

March 30, 2021 - Sheshe Giddens

Humans and their pets go back tens of thousands of years to when we first domesticated the ancestors of the modern dog — the wolf. Over time, a mutually beneficial relationship evolved beyond hunting together and providing protection to include companionship. Recent studies show that this ancient bond with a pet provided the owner with other benefits that improved overall health and well-being, including stress relief.

This emotional connection with the domesticated canine continues to this day and extends to other companion animals — cats, birds, ferrets, guinea pigs, horses, rabbits, small reptiles, fish and others — that we call our beloved pets.

Our bond with pets

Four-legged friends, fur babies or whatever pet names we call them by — pets have worked their way into our hearts and our homes. We care for them, we shelter and feed them, and we worry about them when they're sick. Some people dress them up, while others consider them to be one of their kids. And our pets seem to care about us as well.

Many of us have adopted pets as members of our family. More than 68% of households include pets, many with multiple pets from the same species or even a mix of different ones. According to the American Pet Products Association's 2019-20 National Pet Owners Survey, more than 63 million households include a dog, while almost 43 million households have a cat and almost 12 million have freshwater fish.

Choosing the right pet

Having a pet is a big responsibility. But as with any worthwhile relationship, there should be more pros to having a pet than cons. Not all pets are created equal, and not all animals within the same species offer the same health benefits. Choosing the wrong pet for you and your family can create more stress if it isn't the right fit. A problem pooch who howls throughout the night disrupting your sleep as well as your neighbors', or a ferocious feline who attacks family and visitors as well as your furniture, can create problems at home. While no pet is perfect, choosing the wrong pet can have the opposite effect on your stress level.

6 factors for pet selection

To ensure that the newest member of your household fits your lifestyle, personality and family — do your homework. To avoid adding to your stress, consider:

  1. Age, health and activity level of the members of your household
  2. Your lifestyle and availability to spend time with the pet
  3. Species, size, age and breed of the new pet, as well as any existing pets
  4. Known health problems for the animal breed
  5. Amount of living and outdoor space you have
  6. Available income for pet expenses, including pet medical care

Many pets provide opportunities for exercise and play, which reduce stress hormones and release endorphins, which also relieve stress. In addition, pets can have a calming effect when you cuddle up with them or simply observe them.

Can dogs help your health?

As the most popular pet, many dog breeds make ideal companions. Known as "man's best friend," they are highly social and loyal and can make the perfect playmate for the kids or as a walking or running buddy for you.

Are cats good for your health?

If laughter makes the best medicine, cats give you a good dose of it. Have you ever watched one of those popular cat videos? Although cats have a reputation for being aloof, like dogs, they can be very affectionate. They also require exercise in the form of play, which is a great opportunity to get moving around the house.

Do fish impact your health?

Even the smallest pets can have a big impact. Have you ever wondered why you see so many fish tanks in waiting rooms, such as at doctors' and dentists' offices? Watching fish swim around the aquarium or listening to the sound of flowing water and bubbles can be quite relaxing and help reduce stress.

Health benefits of pets

When you think about how we interact with companion animals and the benefits we get from them, it's easy to understand why we love our pets. There is nothing like coming home to a loving animal, who is happy to see you after a rough day at work or a stressful situation.

According to the National Institutes of Health, our bond with pets can have a positive impact on our health and well-being by:

  • Reducing stress
  • Boosting our mood
  • Relieving loneliness
  • Increasing our opportunity for socialization

And, according to some studies, interacting with them has several other health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, triglycerides and cortisol levels. Pets also allow us to increase physical activity when we take them for a walk or play with them, which in turn reduces stress.

Health care providers have also found that pets can provide other health benefits when used in a therapy setting.

Making pets part of hospital care

During animal-assisted therapy, hospitalized patients in West Pavilion, who are undergoing inpatient rehabilitation at Houston Methodist Hospital, benefit from pet interactions in multiple ways.

"Patients get so excited about working with the dogs because many have pets at home or had them in the past. Interacting with them takes the patient mentally, emotionally and socially out of the hospital setting," says Dawn Brown, a Houston Methodist therapeutic recreation specialist.

"We have seen patients walk further and more efficiently with physical therapy, speak with more fluidity and clarity, or improve memory issues with speech therapy. They have improved grip strength, and improved fine motor skills with occupational therapy — just by walking, giving commands and brushing a dog. Multiple goals can be worked on using our volunteers and their dogs as our therapy partners," says Brown.

Animal-assisted therapy may be the cat's meow, but no cats are included during therapy sessions. Patients primarily work with dogs. And, since the COVID-19 pandemic started, parrots have made a great addition to Zoom calls for speech therapy and memory patients.

According to Brown, this type of therapy helps patients relax while giving them a pick-me-up around the animals. The experience can lower blood pressure and release endorphins, as well as help with joint movement. Patients even ask to see the dogs, even when it isn't their time for therapy.

"Our amazing volunteers and their wonderful dogs from Faithful Paws are great. Dogs have a sixth sense, and, without cues or training, they can read whether a patient is anxious, confused, etc. The dogs settle right in with our patients as if they have been around them for years," Brown adds.

Houston Methodist Hospital Volunteer Services works with various volunteer organizations throughout the community to bring pets and their owners to the hospital to interact with patients.

"The majority of our pet visits in the hospital are just visits where the patients pet and love on the animal or watch them do tricks. Only a small portion of the visits are exercise activities with the patients. Most patients benefit just from getting some love from a pet," says Amanda Guest, director, Houston Methodist Hospital Volunteer Services and Gift Shop.

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