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Rx for a better life? Get a pet, and do it now! It might be the prescription of the future: Take two aspirin and get a pet immediately.

Numerous studies have shown that pets – or at least the presence of animals – can have medical benefits that are beyond dispute. These range from lowering blood pressure to lessening anxiety and depression and even to faster healing times after surgery.

Fido is no placebo – he can literally be man’s best friend when people are ailing. “We have known for many years that the company of a pet can be of benefit in a variety of ways, but exactly why this is, no one seems to have the answer,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, who specializes in animal behavior and human-animal relationships at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“For example, the long-term survival rates of heart attack victims who had a pet have been shown to be significantly longer than for those who did not. There is also data showing that widows who have cats are better off medically during the first year, which is a critical stress time, than widows who do not.”

Other studies have shown that:

Senior adults who own dogs go to the doctor less than those who do not. In a study of 100 Medicare patients, those who owned dogs made 21 percent fewer visits to a physician than non-dog owners;
Pet owners have lower blood pressure, and one study showed that just 10 minutes in the company of an animal significantly reduced blood pressure rates;
Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than non-owners;
Pet owners have overall better physical health due to exercise with their pets;
70 percent of families surveyed reported an increase in family happiness and fun after acquiring a pet;
Children exposed to pets during their first year of life have a lower frequency of some allergies and asthma;
Children who suffer from autism have more prosocial behaviors if they own a pet;
Owning a pet – especially a dog – helps children in families better adjust to the serious illness or death of a parent;
Pets decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation in their owners;
Having a pet may decrease heart attack mortality rates by 3 percent, which translates into 30,000 lives saved annually;
Positive self-esteem in children is enhanced if the child owns a pet;
Children owning pets are more likely to be involved in sports, hobbies, clubs or even chores;
Victims of AIDS who own a pet report less depression and reduced stress levels. Many groups take pets to visit residents of nursing homes, and usually the experience is a very positive one for both the pet and the individual.
“Many people in nursing homes had pets all of their lives, but for several reasons, are not allowed to in an extended-care facility,” says Beaver.
“The tendency is to make those places ‘sterile,’ with minimal plants or animals. Those who bring in nature of all kinds generally bring in a better quality of life to their residents.”
The reverse is also true – the life of a pet is usually enhanced if its owner cares for it properly.
“Geriatric animals in most veterinary settings are those that have had loving and caring owners who followed good husbandry practices,” she adds.
“We don’t really understand why pets make us feel better and in some cases, add years to our own lives,” Beaver explains.
“There are many forms of the animal-person relationship. Some are not good, some are neutral, some are not realistic at all and some are very nurturing. Different people get different benefits from the animal, and even different benefits at different stages in the person’s life.”

Keith Randall
Texas A & M University