I have been mulling over ideas for my first blog and I have to tell you coming up with a topic was much harder than I imagined it would be!
My passions are as vast as the health and wellness umbrella, so I found my head scattered and my thoughts bouncing around like a tennis ball on a court with Venus and Serena Williams.
As the gym gets finished, I really have been determined to put content out there for my members. I have been composing a workout library for customers to access free of charge on my website, and today I really wanted to dive into my first blog. But again, I was struggling with topics. So today I put the struggle aside and followed my heart and inspiration.
This morning I walked into my kitchen after my morning run to touch base with my husband as he was having his morning tea, eating breakfast, and booting up for work. The pups at first followed, then ran past me fighting each other to get to daddy first. Daddy time is special in this house! Dennis picked up Max, and Zoey waited intently for her turn (Zoey usually wins the race against Max, however this morning she was a close second since she took a few extra seconds to steal Max’s chew toy as he was running). As we all scurried towards Dennis, it dawned on me how much our lives changed since we’ve gotten these two little fur babies.
Coming from a Behavioral Health Science background, behavioral theories and models are engraved in my memory and have shaped the way I see human interactions and lifestyle behaviors. For those of you not familiar with behavioral models and theories, they are generally composed of many constructs that help health care professionals promote behavior change. Many of the theories have overlapping constructs, one of which constructs the impact of social support and social connections on human health and wellbeing. Social support and connections can consist of our relations with family, friends, coworkers, and even animals.
There are many health benefits of owning a pet, which can often increase our opportunities to exercise, get outside, and socialize. Regular walking and playing with pets can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels. Pets can also manage loneliness and depression by giving us companionship.
In addition to the companionship animals provide, they have been shown to have a strong influence on physical and heart health. Many studies have explored the relationship between pet ownership (primarily dogs and cats) and the reduction in heart disease risk factors and increased survival among heart disease patients, with many reporting beneficial effects, including increased physical activity, favorable lipid profiles, lower incidence of obesity, lower systemic blood pressure, improved autonomic response, and diminished sympathetic responses to stress (think fight-or-flight response).
Pet Ownership and Coronary Heart Disease/Coronary Artery Disease (CHD/CAD) Survivors
One of the first studies done was on CHD survivors. Friedman, et al., looked at the survivors of CHD and 94% of 1-year survivors of pet owners compared to the 72% of non-pet owners. The benefits the pet owners exhibited extended beyond the physical activity and the reduced mortality was attributed to the emotional effects of companionship, which showed improvement in depression (1980). Another study assessing the relationship between pet owners and CAD concluded pet ownership has a protective effect on CAD patients. In this study, the length of pet ownership was also indicative of improved heart health. Specifically, the researchers found a decreased tendency of CAD among those who owned a pet for longer, as well as played with their dogs longer each day (Schreiner, 2016).
Pet Ownership and Autonomic Function and Cardiovascular Reactivity
Autonomic function is regulated by the autonomic nervous system, which regulates certain body processes, such as blood pressure and the rate of breathing. This system works automatically without a person’s conscious effort.
A positive or beneficial relationship between pet ownership and autonomic function or cardiovascular reactivity to stress has been reported in several published studies. For example, a study showing the cardiovascular benefits of pets, examined the influence of pets in married couples, half with pets and half without pets. This study found that pet owners had lower heart rates and blood pressure at rest, and recovered faster from stress when their pet was present (Allen, Blascovich, & Mendes, 2002).
Another randomized study on pet ownership and reactivity was assessed through blood pressure response to mental stress. Physiological responses to mental stress were assessed before pet adoption and 6 months later, with pets present for those who had adopted them. Compared with non-pet owners, those who adopted a pet had similar physiological response to mental stress at baseline, but significantly diminished increases in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and heart rate when exposed to mental stress (Aiba et al. 2012).
Pet Ownership and Physical Activity
Of all pets, dogs appear most likely to positively influence individual’s levels of physical activity (Brown & Rhodes, 20006). Studies show that dog owners engage in more physical activity and walking, therefore are more likely to achieve the recommended level of physical activity than non-dog owners. For example, data from a survey of 5,253 adults revealed that after controlling for age, sex, and socioeconomic status, dog owners engaged in significantly more walking and physical activity than nonowners and were 54% more likely to obtain the recommended level of physical activity (Oka & Shibata, 2009). Similarly, in an Australian study, which controlled for the same variables, dog owners engaged in significantly more walking and PA than nonowners and were 57% more likely to meet the recommended level of physical activity than nonowners (Cutt, Giles-Corti, Knuiman, Timperio, & Bull, 2008).
Pet Ownership and Obesity
Participation in physical activity with a pet is one mechanism whereby pet ownership may reduce obesity. As mentioned, another important role that pets play in human health is social support, which is one of the most powerful predictors of adopting and maintenance of behavior change, including weight loss (Cohen, 2004). Companion animals may strengthen engagement in a weight loss program by providing encouragement and motivation and reducing perceived barriers that hinder exercise (i.e. neighborhood safety) (Sumanski, Poston, Petosa, Stevens, & Katzenmoyer, 2005).
Observational studies have examined how weight status varies among households with and without pets have yielded conflicting results, in part because of different patient populations, types of pet studied, and human interactions (i.e. Walking verses ownership).
However, dog walking (as opposed to pet or dog ownership) does appear to be associated with a lower incidence of obesity (Coleman et al., 2008).
What does this all mean?
Am I saying we should all go out and get a dog or cat? Absolutely not. Being a pet owner takes commitment, time, and sometimes a lot of money (Zoey was constantly at the vet after her first flare up of pancreatitis at 4 months). Additionally, some individuals are very allergic to animals and in this case, a pet wouldn’t benefit their health and could get them sick.
Animals interact with humans in multiple ways, including as therapy and service animals, commercially as livestock, as wildlife, and in zoos. But the most common interaction is as companion animals in our homes, with an estimated 180 million cats and dogs living in U.S households (Schreiner, 2016). While pet ownership has been reported to have many health benefits, the findings are inconsistent. Of the most consistent finding of pet ownership, is the increase of physical activity with pet owners. Yet nothing can be considered causal in the research, regardless of some correlation between pet ownership and improved health.
So, where does this leave me and my thoughts on pet ownership and improved health?
My first pup, Zoey, was a gift from my husband because he realized I was going through a tough time and needed support that he couldn’t provide. It was not an easy time for me. I felt really isolated as I finished my undergraduate degree and went right into graduate school. Although I was 100% sure I wanted to go to graduate school, my loneliness crept in since returning to college in 2015. I was much older than many students and most of my peers were my instructors and professors. I had difficulties connecting with other students in a way that I craved. Juggling Zoey’s care and my vigorous graduate school schedule was difficult, but she brought a light into my life that I needed, and she continues to expand my heart in ways I didn’t know possible. When she looks at me, my heart melts!
Maxwell was our gift to Zoey, as we recognized she needed a buddy to go through this life with; he is more relatable and like her (there are days when I just don’t cut it). I love him very much, and truthfully today he was my inspiration for writing this. He's a special little dude.
So, although I can’t say for certain that my little fur babies will improve my health, they certainly make my heart happier, decrease my stress, and improve my mental health. They have also made some days much more bearable as I navigate through the pandemic and find my own way to cope and manage life through this global crisis.
So, for those of you that are pet owners, what do your critters do for you on a daily basis? Have you stopped to think about it?