During the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Irene who is now retired, told us: "I watched in horror, over and over, the images of the planes flying into those buildings, and I thought those poor people. Without even thinking, I called out for ‘Beau.’ I wanted to reach out and hold him, but then I remembered, he wasn’t there anymore."

Silence greeted Irene, as she remembered with sadness, that her best friend ‘Beau’, who she had raised from a puppy, had died of cancer at the age of 14.

If you have ever looked into the eyes of a shivering, frightened animal and through a simple act of kindness been rewarded by a gentle nuzzle, the sounds of a whimper or a contented purr, and felt the gentle warmth of their heartbeat, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

However, often we need science to quantify for us what our feelings and common sense are already telling us. Namely, that pets are natural therapists for children and adults alike. They can help kids overcome aggression and shyness, and they teach responsibility and empathy.

Scientific studies have demonstrated that pets lower blood pressure just by being present.

For example, in the early 1980s, the staff of The Humane Society of Canada helped pioneer the concept of pet facilitated therapy by visiting nursing homes with dogs and cats. Although we had to overcome a great deal of skepticism and opposition from many members of the medical community, the improvement in the disposition and the well being of some of the patients was nothing short of astonishing.

In a study at the Centre for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University in Indiana, Dr. Alan Beck, found that nearly 50% of adults and 70% of the children they studied at confide in their animals. They know that pets won’t betray them, and animal give back unconditional love. Pets don’t judge. They have no gender, no race and no age in the eyes of many people.

In a study released in February 2000, researchers led by Dr. Karen Allen, at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that stockbrokers with hypertension who adopted a dog or a cat had lower blood pressure readings in stressful situations than did their pet-less counterparts.

The researchers examined 48 male and female stockbrokers who were using medication to control high blood pressure. All earned more than $ US 200,000 a year, lived alone, and had highly stressful jobs.

The researchers admitted that they were not sure what happens physiologically to lower a patient’s blood pressure, but suspected that having a pet on your side, someone you can always count on that is non-judgmental, psychologically creates a beneficial atmosphere.

For nearly 25 years, research has shown that living with pets appears to provide certain health benefits. Heart attack patients with pet companions survive longer than those without, according to several studies. Male pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels than non-owners, according to Australian researchers.

Even more interesting are the psychosocial effects according to Dr. Lynette Hart of the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Her studies have shown that Alzheimer’s patients have fewer anxious outbursts if there is an animal in the home. Their caregivers also feel less burdened if there is a pet, particularly if it the animal is a cat, which generally requires less care than a dog.

In the elderly, pets can be a great source of comfort and joy. Walking a dog or just caring for a pet, for those who are able, can provide exercise and companionship. In fact, one insurance company, Midland Life Insurance Company of Columbus, Ohio ask clients over the age of 75 if they have a pet as a part of their medical screening. A spokesperson for the company said that pet ownership often helps tip the scales in favour of older clients looking for life or long-term care insurance.

In addition, many people who are vulnerable to depression or anxiety suffer less if they have a pet than those living without pets. Dr. Judith Siegel, a UCLA professor of public health, published a study in May 2000 in the journal AIDS Care showing that pet owners with AIDS are far less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. The benefit is especially pronounced when people are strongly attached to their pets.

Even in immune-compromised AIDS patients, the health benefits outweigh the risks if the owners adopted safe pet handling practices (such as washing their hands after handling their pet, and taking normal precautions to control fleas and ticks).

Does this mean that everyone who suffers from heart disease or depression should adopt a pet to ease his or her pain?

No, say the researchers. The positive health aspects of living with a pet seem to work best in people who like animals. You can’t simply prescribe a dog to everyone. People come along with a history of loving animals - perhaps certain kinds of animals - that brings with them those warm feelings. The benefits are there because you have the expectation of these warm, good feelings, according to the researchers.

For example, Aline Kidd, a psychology professor at Mills College was instrumental in introducing animals in nursing homes in the United States, a practice that is gaining more acceptance today. In one particular nursing home, she brought in cats and dogs only to find that the residents were not really all that interested. Then one day, she brought in a pig and all of the residents loved him. It turned out, that many of the residents had grown up on farms with pigs.

Does this mean that if a person has fond memories of pets, that the person can improve their health by adopting a pet now?

Not necessarily. People with allergies to dogs and cats are not encouraged to keep them as house pets. In January 2000, a committee at the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. reported that dogs and cats, along with other causes, can aggravate asthma, and recommended the removal of pets from the homes of people with asthma.

Notwithstanding this kind of advice, it has been our professional and personal experience (my father and brother have asthma) that people still keep dogs and cats in their homes, and simply keep taking allergy medication, because their affection for their pets outweighs their discomfort.

The Role of Pets in Reducing Human Health Costs

A 1999 Australian study reported by Petnet Australia estimated that Australian dogs and cats saved $ A 2.227 billion ($ CDN 1.848 billion) of current health expenditure in 1994-95. The study found that compared to non-pet owners:

  • people who own pets typically visit the doctor less often and use less medication
  • pet owners, on average, have lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure
  • pet owners recover more quickly from illness and surgery
  • pet owners deal better with stressful situations
  • pet owners are less likely to report feeling lonely.

We have been unable to find such reliable information for Canada or other countries. However, this is an intriguing area that bears more investigation and research.