Animal Article
Beyond Body
Pet Prescription
Kat dela Torre, DVM

Healthy heart, less stress, lowered cholesterol levels, and improved mood. Most people will probably attribute such things to regular exercise, good diet, healthy lifestyle, and good genes. But what many fail to appreciate is that these wonderful benefits can also be gained from something somewhat disconnected from them—pet ownership.

Numerous studies and anecdotal reports worldwide attest to the wide array of health benefits of owning a pet. Here are some of them:

  • Healthier heart. All other things being equal, people with pets have been found to have lower blood pressure than those without. Having normal blood pressure also puts less stress on the heart, giving the individual an overall better cardiovascular system.In fact, a study conducted in 2009 found that cat owners are 37 percent less likely to suffer from a heart attack than their cat-less counterparts. The simple act of petting an animal has been found to lower the heart rate and reduce anxiety.
  • Ah-choo no more. Children who have been exposed to pets from infancy have also been found to be less prone to allergies and eczema. These children have also been found to have more self-confidence and be generally healthier. Respectively, these are attributed to the unconditional love that animals show and their regular exposure to germs and allergens (e.g. pet dander). “Dogs are dirty animals, and this suggests that babies who have greater exposure to dirt and allergens have a stronger immune system,” says Dr. James E. Gern, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.Experts, however, caution parents that some research also showed that pets may increase the likelihood of allergies and asthma attacks. So a consultation with your child’s pediatrician is prudent before acquiring a furry friend.
  • Blues be gone. According to Dr. Ian Cook, the medical director of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA, pets can help ease depression because of the unconditional love they offer. Their loyalty and dependence also gives the owners a sense of purpose and belonging which can help improve their self-esteem.
  • Specialized help. Some dogs are also trained and called upon to help people with more specific needs. These dogs are generally termed working dogs. We’ve all probably heard of seeing-eye and bomb-sniffing dogs. But nowadays, man’s best friend can also be trained to become a peanut detector, cancer sniffer, or seizure/diabetic attack warning system. Dogs’ noses are so keen that they can detect the tiniest amounts of nuts in food so that they can warn their (peanut-allergic) owners to not eat it. Some dogs can sense changes in your breath, blood chemistry, or body that are attributable to certain forms of cancer or diabetes.A colleague of human-animal behavior specialist, CEO and executive director of the Medical Detection Dogs charity Dr. Claire Guest recounts, that, during her early 20s, her dog kept sniffing and licking at a mole she had in her leg, the dog kept doing this until she finally decided to have it removed. Biopsy of the mole showed cells of malignant melanoma, one of the most serious forms of skin cancer.

At a time when treatment and health insurance are much needed but hardly accessible to many, maybe it’s time for us to revisit what a lot of us can easily “afford” and open not only our homes, but our hearts, to animals.