Pets make giving thanks more fun

By Dr. Beth Leermakers

Photo courtesy of Mohnacky Animal Hospital

Thanksgiving is a time to appreciate what’s going well in our lives. Family and health often top the list when Americans count their blessings. Many pet parents consider their cats and dogs part of their family. Our fur-children may contribute to our physical and emotional health and well-being. Here are seven reasons to be grateful for your pets, this holiday season and beyond.

Companionship. According to a review in the British Medical Journal, dogs act as “social catalysts,” increasing interaction between people and reducing loneliness, especially among elderly patients with physical disabilities. Feeling securely attached to another being is important for our physical and emotional well-being. The unconditional love provided by cats and dogs helps us feel especially secure.

Reduce stress. Dogs and cats seem to have a calming effect. Petting a cat or dog reduces blood pressure. When you feel securely attached to your pet, physiological changes in your brain reduce your stress response, thereby reducing your respiration, blood pressure or anxiety level. One Harvard study found that oxytocin levels increased when people gazed into their dogs’ eyes — really! Oxytocin is a feel-good hormone that plays a role in social bonding. Higher oxytocin levels appear to be associated with greater relaxation, more willingness to trust others, and general psychological stability. Oxytocin appears to help us reduce our stress response and reduce general anxiety. Petting a dog results in a surge of oxytocin and endorphins (other feel-good hormones). These hormonal boosts are short-lived, but the effects may accumulate over time. 

Personal trainer. Dogs, particularly high-energy dogs, encourage their people to walk them. I wouldn’t be out walking on cold or rainy mornings if my dogs didn’t need the exercise. One study found that children who had dogs engaged in more moderate to vigorous physical activity than dog-free kids. This finding may extend to adults. Some studies have found that dog owners get more physical activity than non-dog-owners, although most dog parents don’t walk quickly enough to improve their cardiovascular fitness. However, just being outside in green space may reduce stress.

Dating service. One study found that pet owners were more likely to get to know their neighbors than non-pet-owners. Dog owners interacted while out walking their pooches, while cat owners connected by offering to watch each other’s cats while they were away. Dogs provide plenty of natural conversation starters: What’s your dog’s name? How old is she? What breed mix do you figure she is? In one Wall Street Journal study, a young man walking his dog in a shopping area [received? got?] phone numbers from one in three women, compared with less than one in 10 when he walked alone. Owning a dog may make you seem more trust-worthy.

Health benefits. Dubbed the “pet effect,” several health benefits of pet ownership, including decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease risk, have been identified by researchers. Unfortunately, these findings don’t always stand up to scientific scrutiny. Pet owners are more likely to be Caucasian, married and homeowners — characteristics that are associated with better health. In other words, having a pet may not actually improve your health. Healthier people may choose to have a pet. Even if that’s the case, pets provide plenty of other benefits.

Reduce your child’s risk of allergies. Research by a University of Wisconsin-Madison pediatrician shows having a pet in the home can lower a child’s risk of developing related allergies by as much as 33 percent. Dr. Gern’s research shows that children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall. The protective benefits can begin during pregnancy. One 2017 study found that women who lived with dogs during their pregnancy transferred helpful bacteria to their babies, reducing their risk of common allergies, asthma, obesity, and eczema.

Life-savers. Dogs have an uncanny ability to detect several health threats, including cancer, low blood sugar and seizures. Dogs can smell cancer in the human body, including skin, bladder, lung, breast, ovarian and colon cancer. Researchers don’t know whether dogs detect unknown, tumor-related compounds or pick up the scent (via body fluids) of substances that are related to cancer, such as cigarettes. According to one study, one third of dogs living with diabetics displayed behavioral changes when their people’s blood sugar dropped, sometimes before the person was aware of the decline. Some dogs are specially trained to recognize low blood sugar, alerting their person before levels become dangerously low. Seizure dogs are trained to keep their people safe during a seizure. Although there isn’t scientific support for this theory, some people believe these dogs can alert their owners about an oncoming seizure, allowing them to take medication that prevents seizure activity. Peanut detection dogs are specially trained to identify these allergens, alerting their charges.

I’m grateful to my dogs for making me laugh and being so happy to see me when I come home. What do you appreciate about your pets?

Happy Thanksgiving!

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