Can Pet Affection Improve Heart Health?

The strong human-to-animal bond is powerfully therapeutic. Few things can compare to the spontaneous lift, the brightening of our spirits felt upon arriving back home at the end of a long day, to be greeted at the door by a loving and devoted pet.
09/29/2015 07:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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An energetic-looking young woman came bouncing down the aisle of the airplane so quickly that I barely had time to read the message on her T-shirt before she plopped down in the seat next to me. It read in bold letters "I LOVE ANIMALS," and underneath in smaller italics, "humans not so much."

Being an animal lover myself, her shirt made me smile. I felt compelled to ask her about it. She told me that she was a veterinary medicine student and has cared for an expansive menagerie of critters since she was a little girl. My exposure to animals was modest by comparison. I've lived with and loved just two dogs over my lifetime thus far. We shared how the companionship of our animal friends has changed our lives for the better in profound ways.

The strong human-to-animal bond is powerfully therapeutic. Few things can compare to the spontaneous lift, the brightening of our spirits felt upon arriving back home at the end of a long day, to be greeted at the door by a loving and devoted pet. Today, many studies are providing ample research and scientific validity on the health benefits of pet ownership.

In his book Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods and Thoughts Affect Your Health, psychologist and author Blair Justice writes, "People in stress mode get into a state of 'dis-ease' in which harmful chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine can negatively affect the immune system. Studies show a link between these chemicals and plaque buildup in the arteries, the red flag for heart disease." He explains that petting our animals for even a few minutes prompts a reduction of the primary stress hormone, cortisol. In addition, there is simultaneously a release of the "feel good," calming hormones including serotonin, dopamine, prolactin and oxytocin (often referred to as the bonding or "love" hormone).

Animal expert and author Arden Moore believes that a pet prescription can be health promoting. This would include spending dedicated time around animals. She suggests that cuddling with your cat or dog or bunny etc., going bird watching or even gazing at your tropical fish can bring a sense of calm enjoyment and overall well-being. She advises "petting with a purpose" by giving your pet a head-to-tail, therapeutic massage by running hand over hand through the body. She explains, "Your touch relaxes the animal and releases endorphins in you, reducing your heart rate." She adds that communicating with your pet through "happy talk" is beneficial. You know... that high-pitched baby talk that we coo to our pets when no one else is around? Moore encourages it because this happy talk has been shown to lower blood pressure in humans.

The American Heart Association released a scientific statement listing a summary of the most relevant studies regarding pet ownership and cardiovascular risk/benefit. They concluded that a substantial body of data suggests that pet ownership is associated with a reduction in CVD (cardiovascular disease) risk factors and increased survival in individuals with established CVD. Some of the reported benefits resulting from pet ownership included: lower resting heart rate, reduced risk of hypertension, increased physical activity, faster recovery of heart rate, lowered reactivity to stress, elevated parasympathetic (rest and restore) and diminished sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system responses, and greater heart rate variability.

Research is showing that in addition to bringing comfort, joy and healing into our everyday lives, pets are also capable of assisting and aiding those with serious medical conditions. Long known for their invaluable contributions as seeing-eye dogs, scientific research is now testing the ability of dogs to sniff out and detect cancerous growths, falling blood sugar levels, and imminent seizures. As reported in WebMD, a study presented at The American Stroke Association's International Stroke Conference reported that owning a cat was linked with a 40 percent lower risk of death after a heart attack.

UCLA researchers found that AIDS patients who own pets are less likely to suffer from depression. Psychologist, Judith Siegel, lead author of the study, writes, "The benefit is especially pronounced when people are strongly attached to their pets. The phenomenon cannot be explained simply by the extra exercise one gets when walking their dog. The emotional bond between the animal and the owner adds something more. Pet ownership is not a substitute for human support, but it's another way to express and receive love." Royal Marine Sergeant Pen Farthing, recipient of the 2014 CNN Hero of the Year Award, knows firsthand about the power of the healing bond between humans and animals. He founded a non-profit organization called "Nowzad Dogs."

I think we could learn how to keep life simple, sweet, and connected by following the example of our pets

It was named Now Zad, after a war torn town in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan where he was stationed. This organization reunites soldiers with the stray cats and dogs they befriended during combat duty in Afghanistan. To date, they have reunited 700 soldiers with the animals they adopted. When accepting his CNN Award, Farthing said, "I know that the dog I looked after was my saving grace from the stress of conflict." He commented that while he looked after the welfare of his soldiers, he felt that his dog, which he named Nowzad, looked after him. Here is a partial list of organizations that provide extra support through pets, for people with special needs:

Above all else, I think we could learn how to keep life simple, sweet, and connected by following the example of our pets. The two pet loves of my life, my dogs Kelly and Boo, were compassionate and effective teachers.

Here is a short list of what they taught me:

  • I learned to stop everything when a loved one comes home and meet them at the door with unbridled affection.
  • I learned that being messy when you eat sometimes increases the pleasure.
  • I learned that I never have to justify taking a nap and that I am nicer to everyone after taking one.
  • I learned that running around outside with my friends and digging in the garden are two of my favorite pastimes.
  • I learned that you can never have too many loving strokes, warm snuggles and yummy snacks.
  • I learned that forgiving a slight as soon as possible is my ticket into the heart-healing intimacy with others that is my true home.
  • Experts estimate that we have been benefiting from the human-animal connection for over 12,000 years. Cheers to the next 12,000 years ahead as we continue to reap the reciprocal rewards of these enduring bonds.

How have you benefited from your connection with a special pet?

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