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The Good, the Bad and the Furry

The emotional benefits of pet ownership can be significant, experts say

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 17, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Anyone who has ever come home from a bad day at work to a tail-wagging, face-licking "hello" knows how easily pets can boost the spirit.

In fact, for many Americans, "today's pets are considered an important member of their family," said Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club (AKC).

Clearly, America is deep in the embrace of love affairs with pets. There are currently 60 million dogs and 70 million cats living in U.S. homes. And Americans spend nearly $40 billion taking care of those and other pets every year, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

But the emotional return on that investment is worth it, experts say.

"Some of the research we've done has been amazing. Very short interactions with an animal that's not even a pet can significantly reduce a patient's anxiety and fear before a serious medical procedure," said Sandra Barker, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine.

"I think one of the first positive effects on mental health comes from the sense of responsibility," said Peterson. "You're caring for a living being, and you become like partners. It's a wonderful feeling to experience and can keep away feelings like loneliness."

Some studies of animals have found these positive mental-health effects:

  • More social contact. Having a dog means you have to get out of the house to walk the dog, which puts you among other people. Also, dogs provide an immediate conversation-starter and encourage socialization with other people. A recent AKC survey found that almost half of women surveyed said they'd talk to anyone with a cute puppy.
  • Lowered anxiety. Research has shown that when people who have been hospitalized for psychiatric illness spend time with therapy animals, their anxiety and fear are reduced.
  • Better quality of life. After brief interactions with dogs, blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol go down. Even watching tropical fish in a tank can provide a sense of relaxation. Pets also offer emotional support, similar to that of a close friend.

Pets don't just affect adults' mental health either -- children benefit greatly from these relationships as well. Some studies have suggested that children with pets have higher self-esteem and lower levels of fear than kids from pet-free homes. Like adults, children also enjoy having a non-judgmental confidant they can share their worries with.

"There's just a lifting of the spirit that all pet owners are familiar with," said Barker.

As with other members of the family, however, emotional interactions aren't always positive. There can be a downside to owning a pet, too, experts say.

"The biggest downside of pet ownership is losing them. Their lifespan is not as long as ours," Barker said.

Additionally, animals sometimes create stress in the home. Noisy dogs or birds can cause problems with neighbors. Spraying cats can destroy furniture. The habits of nocturnal rodents, such as hamsters, can keep you and your family from getting a good night's sleep. Sometimes, one family member doesn't want an animal but the others overrule that person, causing friction. Also, the cost of pet ownership -- particularly if an animal becomes ill -- can bring financial and emotional stress.

But many of these negatives can be addressed, the experts say. For example, dogs can be trained to stop nuisance behaviors, such as barking or digging. And if one family member doesn't want an animal, it's important to make sure they don't get stuck with the responsibility of caring for that pet, since that could increase resentment.

"The canine human bond is a great boost for anyone's mental health. Animals teach you to slow down, observe and listen. It's great to experience the unconditional love they give," concluded Peterson.

More information

To learn more about the benefits of pet ownership, read this information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Sandra Barker, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction, Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center and School of Medicine, Richmond, Va.; Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman, American Kennel Club, New York City; American Veterinary Medical Association Web site; December 1995, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine; June 2005, Psychological Reports; June 1998, Psychiatric Services; Nov. 26, 2005 British Medical Journal
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