Is Having a Pet Good for Your Health?

(Image credit: Kristian Sekulic |

A steadily growing number of research studies are showing that pets especially dogs not only make great companions, but also improve the quality of life of their owners.

From acting as a helping hand for the disabled to having a calming effect on anyone who pets them, dogs have a long history of making life better for their best friends.

"There is mounting evidence that dogs, cats and other companion animals such as horses can promote psychological and physical health benefits in their owners," said Peggy McCardle, chief of the child development and behavior branch at the National Institutes of Health.

Furry doctors

People who have pets have a lower risk of developing heart problems than those without pets, according to researchers at the Baker Medical Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, who found that pet owners have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels across the board regardless of their smoking habits, diet, body mass index or income level.

Others studies have shown that dogs can sniff out diseases, including certain types of cancer and health problems associated with diabetes. In 2008, Researchers from Queen's University in Belfast spoke with 138 pet owners with diabetes and found that 65 percent said that their dogs had a behavioral reaction, such as whining and barking, when their diabetic owners experienced dangerous drops in blood sugar.

Similar to other "assistance dogs" such as guide and hearing dogs, dogs that display a strong reaction to hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) episodes are trained as hypo alert dogs, in effect helping their owners stay healthy and safe by signaling them as to when they should seek medical assistance.

French physicians conducted a study earlier this year at Paris' Hospital Tenon and found that a particular dog breed, Belgian Malinois shepherd dogs, can be trained to detect prostate cancer. Doctors trained the dogs to distinguish between the smell of urine from men with prostate cancer and those without it. At the end of the training and study, the dogs correctly identified 63 out of 66 samples.

Pet therapy

Just petting an animal has been proven to help those battling an illness or suffering from depression. In fact, a 2008 American Heart Association study showed that seniors and people who had recently undergone surgery responded better to treatment and had faster recovery rates if they had contact with dogs and other therapy animals.

"Pet therapy is a well received mode of helping many varied groups, for example hospitalized youth, elderly people and HIV-AIDS patients," said Danny Joffe, a medical director at the Calgary Animal Referral and Emergency Centre in Alberta, Canada. "Such benefits as decreased blood pressure, decreased heart rates and decreased feelings of neglect and hopelessness have all been well documented scientifically."

Therapy with pets has often been successful when other forms of therapy have failed, Joffe told Life's Little Mysteries. As an example, he cited an elderly institutionalized woman who hadn't spoken for several years, despite many attempts to get her to speak. After interacting with a visitation dog from a canine therapy group, she turned to her caregiver and said,"very nice dog."

A study conducted this year by University of Missouri-Columbia researchers rated the emotional well-being of 200 participants using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D), a commonly used test that measures depression. The research showed that single adults and women were less likely to suffer from depression if they own a dog.

The study also found that dogs did not add to their owners' depression, meaning that there was no emotional downside to possessing a pooch.

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Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.