Want to live long and prosper? Get a pet, American Heart Association research says

Jun 24 2013 - 12:32am

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Toby is a therapy dog who visits patients once a week at Ogden Regional Medical Center.
Toby is a therapy dog who visits patients once a week at Ogden Regional Medical Center.

Want to live longer and cut the risk of suffering from heart disease? Get a pet.

The American Heart Association issued a statement last month saying owning a pet may help to decrease the risk of a person having heart disease and is also linked with lower levels of obesity, blood pressure and cholesterol.

The research shows the loyalty and love pets display can reduce stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness, which increases a sense of well-being and self-esteem while cutting the risk factors for heart disease. However, it's not clear whether the act of owning a pet could lead to a reduction in cardiovascular risk in those with pre-existing disease, the researchers add.

Approximately 78.2 million people in America own a dog, and 86.4 million own a cat, according to a survey conducted by The American Pet Product Association.

Damon Marsh, a physician's assistant at Ogden Clinic, said there are studies that suggest that having a pet does assist in controlling blood pressure. In addition, he said, a recent study over 20 years showed those who did not own a cat were almost 40 percent more likely to die of heart-related disease than those who do own a feline. Another study of 240 married couples showed those with pets had lower blood pressure while at rest and during activity, he said.

"One other study showed that children with hypertension lowered their blood pressure while petting their dog," Marsh said. "WebMD also recently ran an article about the lower cholesterol in pet owners, but they could not as yet tell if that was from the extra activity that pet owners get as a result of having an animal."

Marsh also said pets have a positive effect on children with autism and other disorders.

"They can also teach children about caring for another, which is one of the most important things we can learn in our lives," he said.

There is even more mounting evidence pointing to our furry friends' healing powers. A study out of the University of California shows that children exposed to a pet during the first year of life have less chance of developing allergies, asthma and eczema in adulthood. Prenatal pet exposure has also been shown to lower allergic antibody production in the umbilical cord.

Marsh said animals are the true givers of unconditional love and are often prescribed to help cope with situational stress and other mental issues.

"They create interaction for those that have little or none otherwise," he said.

Ogden Regional Medical Center offers pet therapy at its facility. Animals in the program visit patients and their families in an effort to lift their spirits, induce relaxation, reduce stress and decrease loneliness.

Sally Gale, Health To You and volunteer director at Ogden Regional Medical Center, said nine dog owners and teams visit patients at the hospital once a week for approximately two hours.

"We find that our visitors and staff get much pleasure and stress relief from the pet therapy animals," Gale said. "The teams visit all units, including pediatrics and intensive care. Overall, the pet therapy program has been a positive addition to Ogden Regional's patient-centered care program."

One of the therapy dogs, Toby, was able to bring the stress and anxiety level down in a patient and their family members just recently, Gale said. Instead of fear, the atmosphere changed to calmness and relief.

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