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Pets and heart health - there is a connection.

Did you know having a pet can be effective in reducing high blood pressure and controlling stress levels?

It's true. Pets and heart health do share a positive connection. Pets can lift your spirits and improve your mood when you are feeling down, sad, or grumpy. It’s difficult to stay in a bad mood when your pet loves you unconditionally and you can see it in their adoring gaze. When you are greeted at the door at the end of a hard day by a loving pet, all your stresses melt away. Sounds like a pretty good prescription for a healthy (and happy) heart!

Several studies have demonstrated that pet owners tend to have lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels than non-pet owners, and are therefore at a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease.

In recognition of this connection between pets and heart health, some insurance companies have even started offering lower life insurance rates for pet owners.

A report by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association with Jericho Communications says, "Everyone knows that people who refrain from smoking can get better insurance rates." The report went on to say, "pets could be so good for people that qualified pet owners could actually reduce their insurance rates."

The report cited research studies showing that caring for pets can lower blood pressure and stress levels, help prevent heart disease, and fight depression.

Midland Life Insurance Company took the concept one step further - announcing that it now recognized pet ownership as a healthy lifestyle choice, potentially leading to lower rates for qualified applicants.

Pets offer love and companionship, can enjoy comfortable silences, they'll keep your secrets, and they're excellent snugglers. An added bonus, when you pet your animal, not only does your blood pressure go down, but so does your pet's!

For some people, touch from another person is not acceptable, but the warm, furry touch of a dog or cat is. And for the person who lives alone, a pet can provide the benefits of touch and relieve loneliness.

What the research shows about pets and heart health

One well-known study of pets and heart health, specifically the relationship between pet ownership and blood pressure, was conducted at the State University of New York in the late 90s. The study focused on 48 stockbrokers who were taking medication for high blood pressure. The study revealed that the brokers who got a pet reduced their stress induced increases in blood pressure by half.

As well, the study showed that pets were the best support when it came to stressful tests - more so than spouses! Probably because they don't give advice or talk back. Pets can be your confidante - they won’t spill the beans to anyone. They don’t talk back or give unsolicited advice. They are great listeners!

Pets are a source of comfort and affection you can access any time you want without negotiation. Well, dogs for sure. Sometimes cats have their own ideas about when to be affectionate! But generally pets will return your love without condition!

A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 1995 found that dog ownership in particular increased the likelihood of surviving after a heart attack.

A study published in the March 1999 Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that senior citizens who own pets are less likely to be depressed, are better able to tolerate social isolation, and are more active than those who do not own pets.

A 1980 study on animal companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit (E Friedmann, A H Katcher, J J Lynch, and S A Thomas) showed that pet owners have a higher one-year survival rate following coronary heart disease. Of the patients in the study who did not own pets, 28% died whereas only 6% of the pet owners died within one year.

The relationship of pet ownership to survival was the same for men and women.

According to the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, pet owners have a higher one-year survival rate following coronary heart disease.

What kind of pet?

Dog or cat? Although you may have strong preferences, it makes no difference to the positive link between pets and heart health, in particular blood pressure.

Cats

Researchers at the University of Minnesota, found that catless people were 30% to 40% more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those who had cats.

Cats are relatively easy to care for, can be left for periods of time, and don't require a lot of space or exercise. Beyond the initial cost of neutering and perhaps removing its claws, a healthy indoor cat typically requires only routine veterinary care once a year.

Cats can live 15 - 20 years so having such a pet is long term commitment.

My beautiful 19 year old cat Tuxedo was waiting for me when I came home from the hospital after an angioplasty. When I lay down on the couch he snuggled in next to me. Just a few weeks later he passed away of old age, but I'll never forget the comfort of his warm body next to mine, the sound of his purring, and his happiness just to be with me - at a time when I needed his comfort most.

Dogs

Having a dog means you will need to get out for regular walks, which is an added bonus if you are living with heart disease because exercise is one of the key ways to control your blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, and fitness level.

According to a study published in a 2006 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, dog owners living in urban areas generally walk almost twice as much than their neighbors without pet dogs.

People in a University of Missouri study who walked "loaner" dogs 20 minutes daily for 50 weeks lost an average of 14 pounds.


When I was recovering after multiple bouts in the hospital with heart problems, I was advised to get a dog to ensure I’d get out walking every day, and to help me from sliding back into my workaholic tendencies of staying at the office too late. You can’t stay late at work when your canine friend has an urgent appointment with a fire hydrant!

While I didn't rush out and get a dog right away, we eventually got our beautiful Boxador, Jed. He's certainly added a wonderful new dimension to our life - and he makes sure we get out for our walks every day - no matter what the weather or how many excuses I might think of to put off going out.

Fish

If you live where pets are not allowed, an option is to have an aquarium. Watching fish swim about the tank can have a similar relaxing and soothing effect as meditation. The calming effects of the colors, water sounds and fish life can help lower blood pressure and stress levels. I've read that some heart doctors recommend their patients set up an aquarium in their homes to help them keep healthy.

You can choose something as simple as a goldfish in a bowl or an elaborate salt water set up with exotic tropical fish. Keep in mind, whatever size, it will require constant maintenance.

The downside with having pet fish is you can't pet them, they don't smile at you or lick your hand, you can't take them for a walk, and you can’t pack up your aquarium and take it with you on holiday.

Birds

Birds can be wonderful pets. They can bring you years of enjoyment. You may think that having a bird is less costly and time-consuming than other pets; however, owning a bird takes no less responsibility than owning a dog or a cat.

Depending on the type of bird you choose, you may be making a long term commitment. Finches live about four years, Budgies live seven years, Cockatoos, 40 years, and an Amazon or African Grey will live up to 50 or more years.

A good site to visit if you're thinking about getting a bird is peteducation.com.

Pets and heart health in hospitals and nursing homes

Recognizing the relationship between pets and heart health, nursing homes now arrange for pets to visit residents, and some long-term facilities keep even keep pets on the premises.

When my elderly mother was hospitalized recently we asked about bringing our dog Jed to visit her. We expected the answer would be no, so we were presently surprised when they said, "sure!" We were allowed to bring him to a common area for a visit.

I didn't tell my mother that we were bringing the dog to see her - instead I told her we had a surprise. I wheeled her out into an atrium area and there was my husband with Jed, the beautiful black Boxador. My mother is very fond of the dog and had been touched to know that he’d been to her bedroom several times to “find” her. She stroked his head and I couldn’t help but think about the healing qualities of stroking a beloved pet. What a lift it was for her!

In spring 2008, a new set of formal infection deterrents for dogs was issued for North American hospitals. Published in the American Journal of Infection Control, the guidelines emphasize the need for vigilance during any contact with dogs, whether they're visiting owners or involved in patient therapy.

It's important to recognize that these new rules are precautionary only and not based on proof dogs can transmit superbugs.

And now for the other side of the coin...

Despite the benefits of pets and heart health, caring for a pet takes some effort - that's reality. It's a serious responsibility. Pet ownership can be expensive and place limits on your time away from home. If you do want to go away, you have to provide make arrangements for their care while you are gone. You will have to purchase food and treats, litter, litter boxes, and scoops, and possibly toys, beds, climbing trees, scratching posts, leashes,a cage, and a travel crate.

An elderly, ill, or injured pet can require significant veterinary care, medications, or special diets.

Pets can cause wear and tear on your clothing and furnishings, shed hair, and make messes you have to clean up. A barking dog may cause conflict your neighbors. Some people are allergic to animal dander. While stroking a pet will lower your blood pressure, there may be times when a pet will most definitely elevate your blood pressure!

Pets can be a health risk if you don't take the proper precautions. Make sure you

  • Vaccinate your pets as recommended by your vet for rabies and other diseases.
  • Give your dogs medication to prevent heartworm, which in rare cases can infect people.
  • Keep your pets and their living areas clean to prevent infestation with disease-carrying parasites, such as ticks, fleas, or mites.
  • Clean up after your pet. Many diseases are spread by animal feces. Wash your hands after contact with pets or their feces. Note: Pregnant women should not change cat litter boxes to avoid the possibility of infection with toxoplasmosis.
  • Teach children to be be cautious around animals and to not approach unfamiliar animals without an adult present. Don't leave young children unattended around pets, especially if the animal has food.
  • Get prompt medical attention for all animal bites.

More information is available at preventdisease.com

Is a pet for you?

If you're still not convinced of the benefits associated with pets and heart health, here's a good site to review.

So the bottom line, when it comes to pets and heart health, is that pets won't "cure" your heart disease. But for many people, having a pet or pets to love, and be loved by, is well worth any trouble and expense - for a whole host of reasons including living well with heart disease.


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