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Just what the doctor ordered


Research indicates there are health benefits to having pet companions. No matter what our age, pets have positive effects on our mental and physical health.

Research indicates there are health benefits to having pet companions. No matter what our age, pets have positive effects on our mental and physical health.

By keeping you happier and healthier, these animal ambassadors of health may help you live longer and better.

Pets and health—a winning combination

A study in Social Indicators Research of over 3,000 women in China compared dog owners to non-dog owners. Dog owners, the clear health winners, exercised more often, slept better, had higer fitness levels, and fewer sick days and doctor appointments.

Just knowing your dog needs to be walked twice a day is a great exercise motivator. Several studies have shown that dog walking leads to decreased obesity and better health. Because walking is a weight-bearing exercise, it strengthens bones and muscles and reduces the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

Walking or playing with pets is also a good way to get kids to see exercise as fun, especially kids who are already overweight and feel self-conscious about playing team sports. More exercise means happier, healthier kids, and those benefits can last a lifetime.

Finally, having a pet might be the incentive needed to quit smoking, as indicated in a 2009 survey published in Tobacco Control. By protecting Fido and Fifi from second-hand smoke, pet owners decrease their own chances of getting lung cancer and heart disease.

Have a heart— a healthy one

Twenty-five years of studies prove pets are good for the heart. Benefits include decreased blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels, all factors in heart disease. As well, pet ownership allows adults and children to deal with stress better; just petting an animal or watching fish swimming in a tank has a calming effect.

Less stress lowers the amounts of cortisol and norepinephrine, chemicals that reduce our immune system’s ability to fight disease and lead to plaque buildup in arteries, as well as other heart problems. A study from the University of Minnesota of 4,435 people indicated that both current and former cat owners had a significantly lower risk of dying from heart attacks than non-cat owners.

Pets and kids— fewer allergies, less asthma

A study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology indicated that babies in households with dogs were less likely to be allergic to pets or have eczema, and they showed indications of stronger immune system activations. James E. Gern, pediatrician and the study’s author, hypothesized that the infants’ exposure to doggy dirt and allergens boosted their immune systems, which will continue to keep them healthy as they grow.

Similarly, children in households with cats were less likely to develop asthma, unless their mothers had cat allergies.

You’re never too old—for a pet

The healthy effects of having a pet don’t stop with age. Walking a dog keeps seniors active and mobile, while making it easier for them to talk to people and maintain higher levels of social interaction. Caring for a pet also provides companionship, especially for those without friends or family, as well as increasing seniors’ feelings of self-worth and independence.

Interacting with pets has a calming effect, with Alzheimer’s patients in particular showing fewer anxious outbursts. Other benefits of pet ownership for people with dementia include improvements in social interaction, communication skills, short- and long-term memory, and motor skills.

The positive aspects of pet ownership extend to caregivers, who may feel less burdened with an animal in the house. In this case, cats trump dogs, as they require less attention.

Help for depression comes in many forms

While pets aren’t a substitute for medication or therapy, they can play a role in lessening mild or moderate depression. Spending time with a pet raises spirits by increasing production of serotonin, a chemical associated with well-being, and decreases the loneliness that often accompanies depression.

Walking a dog has a two-fold benefit. One, the exercise alone can have a positive effect on mood. Two, dog-walking forces owners out of the house. Once outside, dogs become four-footed ice breakers, giving their owners increased opportunities to interact with neighbours and other dog owners, another mood booster.

Like dogs, cats and birds also make nonjudgmental confidantes, allowing their owners to learn to trust, gain confidence, and feel less lonely. The commitment to care for their pets also helps people who are depressed focus on something other than their own depression.

Whether furred, feathered, or finned, pets bring joy and can add years of healthy living to your life.

Finding pet companions

If you’re already one of the millions of Canadians who have household pets, congratulations, you’ve taken a step toward a happier, healthier life. If you don’t have a pet, but are considering getting one, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies has these suggestions:

  • Use reputable shelters, rescue organizations, or responsible breeders who ensure their animals receive proper veterinary care and socialization.
  • Look for shelters with Meet Your Match program,, which matches people and pets based on personality, to increase the chances you and your new pet will bond for life. Just type in your postal code where the site asks for your zip code and you’ll find adoptable pets in your area.
  • Avoid pet stores, which may be little more than puppy mills that provide inadequate care and socialization that may result in behavioural problems and abandoned animals.

If you can’t own a pet because of allergies, building restrictions, or financial concerns, consider these ways to bring animals into your life:

  • Pet sit for friends.
  • Volunteer at an animal shelter. Shelters often need volunteers to socialize animals and do dog-walking. The former gives you the contact; the latter gives the exercise that is good for both you and Fido.
  • Become a foster pet parent. Shelters sometimes foster animals with special needs or those that need to be socialized before being put up for adoption. Some shelters provide food, supplies, and/or vet services, easing the financial burden.

For a list of Canadian pet shelters, go to or check your local phone book.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD