Puppy love: Pets can improve your physical and mental health | Kitsap Living

Having an animal companion can improve your health. Poulsbo veterinarian Lisa Newnham sees it every day.

“It’s quite remarkable,” she said. “I’ve seen it time and time again. Having a pet can really improve your life.”

According to the National Center for Health Research, research has shown that people who have a pet have healthier hearts, stay home sick less often, make fewer visits to the doctor, get more exercise and are less depressed.

Pets may also have a significant impact on allergies, asthma, social support and social interactions with other people, said Dana Casciotti and Diana Zuckerman, who have both worked in researching the value of pets for human health.

A recent study by the center showed that blood pressure is reduced in times of stress for those who have an animal companion, as opposed to those who don’t.

“Companion animals improve heart health by lowering blood pressure and regulating the heart rate,” the study said.

Other ways health is improved with a pet include that children who have a pet have less anxiety. The study showed that the social support a pet provides can make a person feel more relaxed and can decrease stress. Having a pet can reduce the feelings of loneliness or isolation, not only because the pet becomes a friend, but for example, with a dog, the owner will walk the dog and meet other people while out and about.

The study also showed that elderly individuals with a dog or a cat were better able to perform certain daily living physical activities such as climbing stairs, bending, taking medication preparing meals and dressing. Researchers said that having an animal, and being in that care-taker role, may give older individuals a sense of responsibility and purpose that contributes to their overall well-being.

Another aspect of having a pet in the family is that it will help only children from becoming too shy or too self-centered. Research shows that when a child has no brothers or sisters, pets help children develop a greater empathy, higher self-esteem, and increased participation in social and physical activities.

Newnham said it’s obvious that when someone has a dog, they get more exercise, in that they have to walk the dog.

“When an overweight person gets a dog, they have to walk it and suddenly they are outside getting exercise and enjoying life more,” she said.

She also has experienced situations when pets have helped those who are depressed.

“The connection they make with their pet, the empathy they feel, the feeling of having to be there for someone else — that gives them a reason to get up every day,” she said.

She has a few clients who actually have a professionally trained pet to help them with health conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder.

“We can use pets for emotional support,” she said. “I’ve seen this in people with PTSD.”

One client even has a rabbit as an emotional support animal, she noted.

She also has seen a client rehabilitate himself faster in a hospital setting because he knew he needed to get home to be with his border collie.

Another example of ways that pets can support children emotionally are the programs where children go into animal shelters and read to the animals.

“Animals don’t judge,” Newnham said. “You can be and say things with a pet that you might not with a person,” she said.

Pets provide that safe place for owners to be themselves.

“They give love unconditionally,” she said. “And that’s so important to our physical and mental health. And when a bond is made with a pet, that gives us a reason to be — to care for that dog or cat.”

Dr. Newnham has been practicing in the Kingston and Poulsbo area for the past 20 years. You can reach her at 360-779-6534.

Learn more about pets and their impact on health at www.center4research.org.

This article originally appeared in Kitsap Living – Winter 2017.

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