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Dr. Paul LatimerAnyone who has a pet will tell you that their furry, feathered or scaly friend provides companionship, entertainment, unconditional love and adds a layer of richness to their life.

Some might even tell you that they suspect increased mental well being as a result of their animal companion.

Not surprisingly, research to date proves that pet owners have always believed intuitively what we now know to be true. Pets are good for your health.

Animals have been used therapeutically for more than 200 years. In the late 1700s they were incorporated into the treatment of mental health patients at an institution in England that wanted to provide an enlightened approach to health with less harsh restraints and drugs.

In North America, dogs were used as therapeutic companion animals for resident psychiatric patients in the early 1900s at a hospital in Washington, DC. During the Second World War, patients recovering from combat experiences were encouraged to work with animals at a hospital farm. Ever since then, there have been various attempts to incorporate animals into various forms of therapy.

Today, it is common for hospitals and nursing homes to have therapy dogs and cats visit with their owners so that patients can have some contact and comfort from furry friends.

Research of new pet owners showed a significant reduction in minor health problems during the first month following the arrival of a new pet. This effect lasted for several months and in dog owners it lasted through to the end of the study.

In addition, both cat and dog owners showed improvements in a general health questionnaire over the first six months and dog owners sustained this for the duration of the study.

Physical exercise increased considerably for dog owners, which gave an additional cardiovascular benefit to pet ownership. Dog owners also reported improved self-esteem and less anxiety about becoming the victim of crime.

Another study of homeless youth between the ages of 16 and 23 indicated that the teens identified their pets as companions that provided unconditional love, reduced feelings of loneliness and improved health status.

A third study of people 65 years of age or older found that pet owners were more physically active than non-pet owners and had improved ability to perform the activities of daily living than non-pet owners.

Also, in this study, the ability to perform these daily activities deteriorated more quickly for non-pet owners than it did for those with pets. A noted general relationship was also observed between pet ownership and an older person’s well-being.

Still other studies have shown a benefit of pet ownership in combating depression, but not general illness in older people who are in situations of personal stress and without adequate human social support.

Although more research is needed in this area, the cumulative weight of the research to date suggests that there are psychosocial benefits from animal visitation programs in nursing homes and health centres. In institutional settings, the presence of animals influenced the patient’s tendency to smile and talk, reach out toward people and objects and exhibit alertness and attention.

In fact, pet programs have shown better results than many other alternative therapies such as arts and crafts programs and friendly visitor programs in these settings.

Companion dogs for disabled individuals provide social stimulation that is more reliable than most human companions and studies have also shown that companion dogs help to increase human attention to the disabled individual as well.

Clearly, the health benefits of companion pets are found in many settings and for people of all ages and situations. With all of this in mind, give your pet an extra cuddle or treat tonight to say thanks.

Dr. Latimer is president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and a Kelowna psychiatrist.

pets good for your health

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