Pet Talk column: Pets can keep you healthy |

Pet Talk column: Pets can keep you healthy

Everyone knows that having a pet is good for your heart, but not many people know they can help your immune system and improve your sex life. Now that I have everyone’s attention, keep reading to find even more unknown gems about how pets can improve your health.

First let’s look at the most obvious benefit: your heart. Even before I was a veterinarian, studies were showing the heart health benefits of owning pets. A report by the NIH in 1980, when I was a pre-vet student, showed someone who has a heart attack and leaves the hospital alive and has a dog at home has a 97 percent chance of surviving the first year. Those who did not have a dog at home only had a 72 percent chance of surviving the first year. I think cardiologists should prescribe a dog with your other heart meds!

Lower Blood Pressure

It is also well known that having a pet can lower your blood pressure. The most impressive display of this was a “60 Minutes” report where a child was reading with and without a dog on their lap. When the dog was on their lap, their blood pressure dropped about 20 percent. Numerous studies have repeated these findings. Right alongside your lower blood pressure, if you are petting a pet, your body will immediately start to secrete less stress hormones and make more serotonin and dopamine, the pleasure hormones.

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Among other well-know positive effects of owning a pet are lower cholesterol and triglycerides. You are also less likely to feel isolated or become depressed if you have a pet to share your life with. People who own pets are known to exercise more and live more active lifestyles. People with pets are generally happy, trusting people; they also visit the doctor less often for minor problems.

Immune System

What is lesser known but emerging is that pets can help the immune system. According to Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, some studies show that babies raised in houses with pets develop less allergies and asthma than those without pets. We always thought it would be the opposite. For this effect to take place, studies suggest having a pet around when your child is a newborn; exposure before 6 months of age seems to be the best time to have pets around. Other studies show children raised in houses with pets had less colds and ear infections during their first year than babies living in pet-free homes.

To expound on this and convince you that the “hygiene theory” has merit, read what James E. Gern, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reported in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: “The old thinking was that if your family had a pet, the children were more likely to become allergic to the pet. And if you came from an allergy-prone family, pets should be avoided.” His study looked at blood test markers for allergies and found a 14 percent improvement in these markers if you had a pet in the home; 19 percent of kids with pets versus 33 percent of kids without pets had positive markers. “Dogs are dirty animals, and this suggests that babies who have greater exposure to dirt and allergens have a stronger immune system,” Gern said.

My point exactly.

Benefits For Autistic Children

Autistic children also benefit greatly from pets. Besides the unspoken language connection between autistic children and their pets, pets can help in an educational and social setting. Beck has found in his research that when a dog is in the classroom, autistic and non-autistic children interact better.

From young to old, pets are helping us all live better lives. Many assisted living facilities utilize pets to provide an uplifting atmosphere. Alzheimer’s patients often smile and access old memories when stimulated by a pet, according to their caregivers.

And what about that sex thing? Pets are a great ice-breaker with the opposite sex; especially if you are shy. I have had many single friends borrow my dogs because they are chick or dude magnets! Having a pet lets others know you are a caring, kind and sensitive individual. And they are peace-makers too; after a good fight, my wife and I often opt for a session of pet therapy with our lovable standards, Lincoln and Eleanor.

The funniest thing I’ve read about owning pets was a study by CNN. It said in stressful verbal and math tests, having a pet around earned test subjects the best results. The worst results came when your spouse was around. I’m in the doghouse now for sure! “Lincoln, Eleanor!”

Stephen Sheldon, DVM, practices at Gypsum Animal Hospital. He can be reached at or by visiting the website Dr. Sheldon can also be heard Monday mornings at 8 on Pet Talk at KZYR, 97.7 FM.

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