Rx: Get a Pet!

Author: Nicola Finley, MD
Canyon Ranch Tucson

You don’t need an advanced degree to know that pets are good for you. All you need is a pet. 

It could be that goofy dog that celebrates again every time you walk in a room. Or the world’s sweetest cat, soothing your soul with a purr. And the parrot that squawks hilarious comments just when you need them. Pets are naturals at authentic connection, chasing away stress and making life more fun. 

It’s nice to know, too, that science confirms what you knew intuitively. Nicola Finley, MD, of Canyon Ranch Tucson, has reviewed studies on how pets improve your health and your life. “I prescribe pet ownership,” she says, “just like I prescribe medications.” 

Dr. Finley says she weighs the benefits and possible risks for each patient. Then she adds personal experience and judgment and, if the person is lucky, she gives her professional recommendation: “Get a pet!” 

Here’s what the research shows: 

  • Mood boosters. Pets help alleviate worry and give comfort with their consistent, nonjudgmental support. Their companionship also reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness. “That’s important at any age,” Dr. Finley says, “and especially as we get older.” There’s also evidence that pets can understand human intention and sense when their comfort is needed. So, if you’re feeling down, you just might find your dog resting its head in your lap.
  • Stress reducers. Pet ownership diminishes your body’s sympathetic response to stress. Plus, it’s associated with better coping skills in times of stress. It’s soothing to pet them, too. “Just that simple, repetitive motion is shown to have a calming effect,” Dr. Finley says. 
  • Exercise. Ever chase around a puppy, take extra-long walks or play fetch until your arm gives up? Pet owners report higher levels of physical activity. It’s fun, too.
  • Sense of purpose. Pet owners say that their animals give them more meaning in life. “Having pets is not just about playing with them,” Dr. Finley says. “It’s also the responsibility of taking care of them and providing for their survival.” Maybe feeling needed translates into purpose.
  • Lower cardiovascular risk. Research shows that having cats or dogs can lower your blood pressure. And dog ownership is associated with improved cholesterol numbers and greater longevity. If that weren’t enough, American Heart Association studies link dog ownership with decreased cardiovascular risk. That’s a lot of benefits delivered with a lot of love. 
  • Beneficial gut bacteria. Owning a pet means there’s more diversity of bacteria in your home. Which is good. Pets transfer their beneficial bacteria to you, which enhances your gut (gastrointestinal) microbiome – and that’s associated with reducing medical conditions such as allergies and asthma.
  • When to say no. Benefits aside, pets are not for everyone. They require time and financial commitment and can limit your schedule and travel flexibility. Pets can also be a fall risk if anybody in the home can’t walk steadily. You need to be aware, too, of certain diseases that pets can spread. Plus, they don’t generally live as long as we do. Some people are simply too distressed by the anticipation of losing a cherished companion. Finally, of course, some people have allergies that can make even the most lovable pet a constant irritant. Your physician can advise you on that. 

 Dr. Finley takes all this into consideration before “prescribing” a pet. And her medical expertise is supported by first-hand experience.  “My family rescued two terrier mixes, Mandy and Ruby,” she says. “We all enjoy the unconditional love and the spontaneity of playing with them anytime. They’re such wonderful additions to our family.“ 

Maybe there’s a loving, stress-reducing, joy-inducing pet in your future – and a healthier, happier you. 

Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Health in the US General Population. The American Journal of Cardiology 2020; 125:1158-1161


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