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Pets and your health: the good and the bad

House pets can affect your psychological and physical health in many ways.

July 18, 2011|By Karen Ravn, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • There are upsides and downsides to living with pets.
There are upsides and downsides to living with pets. (Stephen Osman / Los Angeles…)

They cuddle and purr. And they shed. They wag their tails and fetch your slippers. And they shed. They never talk back and they never hold a grudge. And they shed.

There are obvious pluses and minuses to living with pets, not only with respect to your happiness and housekeeping, but also with respect to your health. Here's a sampling of some of what scientists know about how pets can affect your physiological and psychological well-being — the good, bad and downright gruesome.

THE GOOD

Health: An Australian survey found that dog and cat owners were in better health than people with neither (health was measured either by how often people went to the doctor or by how much medication they took). And a study with people on Medicare found that those who owned pets made fewer doctor visits than those who didn't.

Hypertension: A number of studies have found that just being around a dog or petting a dog can lower blood pressure. One study found the same with a pet goat. Another found that simply watching a Lassie movie was enough to lower stress.

Longevity: A year after being released from a coronary care unit, a 1980 study found, pet owners were more likely to have survived than people who didn't have pets.

Bone strength: The sound frequencies ofcats' purrs are between 25 and 150 Hertz. Some researchers have found that sound frequencies between 20 and 50 Hertz can improve bone density and speed the healing of bones and muscles. So maybe that purr … don't laugh. Some scientists actually have suggested this.

Allergy prevention: Evidence is mounting that children raised with pets are less likely to develop allergies to the animals than children raised without. In at least one study, the effect was greater with cats than withdogs. And in at least one other, the preventive effect extended to dust mite, ragweed and grass allergies.

Obesity: A study in Australia found that children who had a dog in their household were less likely to be overweight or obese than children who didn't.

Fitness: In one study, two out of three dog owners took Fido for regular walks. Younger owners were more likely to walk than older owners, and younger dogs were more likely to get taken out than older ones. Bigger dogs got to go on longer walks than smaller ones. Another study found that dog owners were 60% more likely to go for walks in their leisure time than people who owned cats or who didn't own any pet. Finally, a third study suggests that if you want to shape up, dogs make better walking buddies than humans do — perhaps because dogs don't make up excuses for why they can't go that day.

Smoking: Almost 30% of pet owners who smoked said they'd try to quit if they were convinced that secondhand smoke could hurt their pets, a survey found. (Less than 2% said the same thing about their children.)

Schoolwork: Several studies have reported that young children who had had pets (goldfish, hamsters or dogs) were better at making simple biological inferences than children who had never had a pet. Another found that students in a 10-week reading program who practiced reading out loud to dogs improved their skills by 12%. The students in the program who didn't read to dogs didn't improve at all.

Math: Pet owners who had lower blood pressure than non-owners to begin with experienced less of a rise in that pressure when they had to do mental arithmetic. Blood pressure rose least of all for those owners whose pets were with them while they made their calculations.

Heroism: A pit bull who saved a baby from a burning house was recently in the news. Many animals, and especially mammals, are hard-wired to save their own babies from danger, says Pluis Davern, a professional dog trainer in Gilroy, Calif. "But the fact that this dog has encompassed a human baby in its sense of family is probably uniquely canine."

THE BAD

Cost: Whether you rescue a stray kitten off the street or you spend a few thou for a Westminster-bound chow, the cost of acquiring a pet is a drop in the water bowl compared to the cost of taking good care of it through its life. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has calculated how much you can expect to fork over every year to keep your pet in fine fettle: From $875 for a large dog down to $35 for a fish. These are minimums, the association warns: "You should definitely be prepared to pay more."

Allergies: If you're allergic to dogs or cats, and there's one in your vicinity, you're likely to cough and wheeze and sneeze. Your eyes are likely to itch and your nose is likely to run. And you're not likely to enjoy it all very much.

Aggression: About 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, with 1 in 5 bites causing injuries that require medical attention. Children ages 5 to 9 are most likely to be injured, and children are more likely than adults to need medical help.

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