We’ve been bonding with animals for eons — as far back as 12,000 years ago, when a human was buried with its hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup. Going back even further in time, the teamwork of the earliest humans and wolves hunting large ice-age mammals may have given us the edge over our main rivals, according to a new book, “The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.” Today, two-thirds of all U.S. households include pets.
I live in a neighborhood of New York City in which more than a 100 people are listed as local dog-walkers, charging from $10 to $25 a walk, and there are pet supply stores on every other block. Single people, who are common here and usually live alone, seem to benefit most from a pet dog. Whether sedate or bouncy, dogs can dissolve loneliness, as they run up to greet you at the door and pull you outdoors, where you may find yourself easily striking up conversations with other dog-walkers.
But pets aren’t just good for singles. In a study of 240 married couples, those who owned a dog or cat had lower heart rates and blood pressure, both at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than pet-free couples. Pet owners also seemed to have milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend. Pets may help people bounce back from social rejection.
Simply having canine company, even if you’re not playing, can calm the body. One study had participants bring their dogs to the office. They showed measurably less stress as the day went along, while those without a canine companion felt more stressed by the end of the day. When the dog-owners couldn’t bring their dogs, their stress pattern followed the norm.
In 2013, the American Heart Association reported that after weighing a variety of studies, its panel had concluded that owing a pet — especially a dog — is good for your heart. In part because dog-owners walk more, they have lower blood pressure, and lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, a bad fat, in their blood.
Follow a vet’s advice to vaccinate your dog and care for it properly, both for the dog’s health and your own — dog ailments like ringworm can spread to humans. Your dog can bring ticks into the house carrying Lyme disease. Another risk is allergies, particularly if you develop asthma symptoms. Owning a dog seems to make you more likely to develop allergies to dogs.
There’s less science showing that cats are good for your health, but if cats calm and delight you, you have your answer. Cat allergies are about twice as common as dog allergies, and easy to pick up even if you don’t live with a cat now. Once you do, you may find allergic reactions developing over time, or they may come on suddenly, after many years. Some 11 percent of the cats that end up in shelters were given up by their owners because of allergies, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports.
Many people choose to live with a stuffed nose rather than give up a cat. If you’re having allergic reactions to your pet, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America advises that you remove your pet from your home for at least two months and clean thoroughly every week. After two months, if you’re still missing your favorite girl-cat, bring her home and note the changes in your symptoms. There are also less drastic ways you can reduce your exposure to allergens, using air purifiers, keeping your cat out of your bedroom, and having other people clean the litterbox. Although there are some breeds thought to produce less allergic symptoms, no breed is foolproof and each case is different. A company that sells cats for big fees — from $9,000 to nearly $30,000 — that it describes as genetically-engineered to be hypoallergenic has come under suspicion for false claims.
Some people are less allergic to rabbits. We tend to think of rabbits as animals that live in hutches, but house rabbits can be companions that sit beside you and frolic at dawn and dusk.
Before you buy a dog, cat, or rabbit, think about adopting one in an animal shelter and be sure you’re serious — these pets can live for more than a decade. About a third of the dogs and 41 percent of the cats in animal shelters are killed, according to the ASPCA.
April 07, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN