Taking Care of Animals Takes Care of You

The first week in October is Animal Health Week   The Canadian Veterinary Association encourages us to learn more from our vets about caring for our animals, and truth be told, they help take care of us too.

“It’s definitely a win-win situation, says Toronto-based veterinarian Dr. Lana Conway from the Martin Veterinary Hospital. “Pets get us up and going in the morning to feed them, or go for a walk; they teach us love, respect, and care for them, and each other; we can get empathy from animals when we’re sick, and they know when we’re trying to do right by them.”  Dr. Conway cites an example of a diabetic who then has a dog develop diabetes. “It helps to have that regime to take care of both of them, eating well, getting exercise, and taking medication if needed to help manage the disease.” She adds that getting out with a dog can help us to get to know our community, and that community can then help us if we need it.

For more than 25 years research has shown multiple benefits that caring for pets can help lower blood pressure, boost your immunity levels, and may help you to better connect with family, friends, and neighbours.  And, contrary to popular belief, having a cat or dog in the house may actually boost your immune system against allergies. James E. Gern, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that children growing up with animals—be  they cats, dogs, or larger farm animals—are less likely to develop allergies and asthma, according to an article posted on WebMD.  In his studies Gern found that infants and children who were living with or exposed to furry creatures were also less likely to develop eczema, an allergic condition characterized by red, itchy patches on the skin, including the scalp. Pets can become special friends to children, and they will often confide in them, which gives them a healthy outlet to express their feelings without fear of judgement, Dr. Conway says.

At the other end of the life spectre, animals can boost the health of our aging population. In addition to helping maintain physical health by getting out for regular fresh air and exercise with a dog, the animal provides unconditional love and companionship, which can boost mental health, especially for someone who may find themselves alone as they get older.

Many older adults may have to move into retirement or nursing homes and have to give up their beloved animals. However, thanks to a program called Therapeutic Paws of Canada  (TPOC) they may still be able to connect with animals. Trained volunteers and their dogs or cats go into these homes, on a regular basis, which can really liven the days for the residents who may be suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. TPOC also runs child programs where volunteers visit schools, libraries, and community centres when needed.

According to the TPOC website, “The medical establishment recognizes the benefits of therapy dog and cat programs. Connections with pets helps to calm agitated residents and stimulates wonderful conversations…..Recovery from surgery is accelerated when there is continued contact with a pet. The positive impact of our program on the day-to-day life of seniors in our community cannot be calculated.”

Dogs are not the only companion animals that can help boost your health. The simple act of petting a purring cat has shown to lower blood pressure. The purring can actually help strengthen and heal bones too. Low frequency mechanical vibrations have been used since the 1980s to help athletes recover from musculoskeletal problems, and now, studies have shown that similar low density sounds can help improve bone density, which can offset osteoporosis, one of the most common conditions for the elderly. The purring of a cat, thought to be about 25-50 Hz, can provide that low-density vibration.

Several studies have shown that cholesterol and triglyceride levels can be lowered with regular exercise—which may help to ward off heart attacks. So those walks with the dog are good for both of you.

On a mental health note, any enjoyable activity, which includes playing with and caring for a pet, can boost seratonin levels, which affect mood.

In short, owning a pet can help your body, mind, and spirit, helping you to live a happy, healthier life. “The research on this has not been just in one area, but in many,” Dr. Conway says, “and it’s time to learn from that research.”

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