Petting For Your Health

Scoop and Au rule our home. Frightfully glamorous with their soft sparkling clean striped coats, they graciously allow us to serve and pet them, in return for which they provide us with company ~ and the occasional present of a dead mouse or rat.

When I'm feeling down or bored, just looking at their sleek forms as they chase each other through the house and garden is enough to cheer me up. And in the middle of the night when I can't sleep, they're always ready for a chat, a cuddle or a game.

Not just pretty faces, they make sure we stick to an unvarying routine carefully balanced between work and play. During the day cats are excellent managers, making sure the office runs smoothly. When it's time to deal with the more mundane housework, cats help out by chasing the feather duster and dabbling in the soap-filled sink. I don't know how people can live without feline supervision.

You might think by now that I'm a nutcase, but I have science on my side. It's now official and empirically proven that pets are good for your health.

American Heart Association scientists have discovered that cats and dogs can significantly reduce stress-related increases in blood pressure. Half of a 48-strong group of stockbrokers taking an anti-hypertension medicine were given a pet. It was found that those with animal companionship reduced the increase in blood pressure that came with stress by half. There is no record of how the pet's stress level was affected.

Other scientific studies have confirmed anecdotal evidence that pets help fight loneliness and depression. It's long been realised in hospitals or nursing homes that those patients who have regular visits from their pets have shown to be more receptive to treatment. Traumatology centres and children's hospitals regularly bring in pets to speed patients' recovery. Evidence that pets help you reduce the effects of stress has been so convincing that some insurance companies offer lower life insurance rates for pet owners.

For the old and infirm, loneliness is a prime source of depression and ill health. A study published in March last year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that senior citizens who own pets are less likely to be depressed, are better able to tolerate social isolation, and are more active than those who do not own pets. This is not due to side effects such as walking the dog three times a day as no significant difference was found between those who lived with dogs and those who lived with cats.

Dependence on pets is rising with evidence published in the International Journal of Ageing and Human Development showing that many elderly Americans think having a pet is more important than moving to a convenient place to live where pets aren't allowed.

Similarly, pets have a wholesome effect on those suffering from long-term health problems. For example, the Journal AIDS Care published a study in April last year that showed people with AIDS who live with pets are less likely to suffer from depression than people with AIDS who don't.

Interestingly, the US-based organisation, Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS), that assists AIDS victims in keeping and caring for their pets, recognising their mental and physical therapeutic value, was established before the study was published.

Why do animals have this effect on us? First it must be stressed that the pets taking part in these studies do not spend their entire lives locked up in a kennel or cage, but are part of the family. A farmer may work all day on his farm without gaining the slightest advantage from the contact he has with his stock. The benefit from pets is only apparent when the animal lives in a comfortable environment that allows it to develop a personality. In short, animals are like people ~ lock them up or isolate them and they will become depressed and ill. Forget to feed them properly and they will suffer health problems, only a happy pet is a boon.

Communicating with a pet is very free from stress. Pets are not critical about who you are or what you wear, as long as you're good to them. The very action of stroking a soft, clean coat is soothing. But when you're talking to people, there's endless speculation about what they really think of us. Give a welcoming smile and someone will wonder if it's derision. Frown because you have a headache, and we'll be convinced you disapprove.

With pets, it's quite different. A dog's waving tail and the purr of a cat are unmistakable signs of affection. Their eyes are truly windows to the soul, expressing their emotions without dissimulation. And this love is lasting.

There's another plus about your pooch - even when you make a real fool of yourself, your fuzzy pal will not scold or shout, but rather join in the fun. Maybe that's why some companies are allowing pets to come to work. They're not after a psychological Band-Aid, but a cover-up.

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