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Benefits of a cat or dog is a pet topic for Mayo doctor
Jill Burcum / Star Tribune
      Many pet owners joke that they wouldn't mind switching places with their animals. After all, a life with free room, board and health care -- and in which the only stress of the day is deciding which furniture to sleep on -- is hard to beat.
     But increasingly, science is showing that the relationship between humans and their pets isn't as one-sided as it may seem. As people take care of their companion animals, researchers have found, the animals are taking care of their owners.
    That's right. Fido and Fluffy are good for more than playing ball or batting at a piece of yarn. Those with furry, feathered or finned friends in the home may actually be healthier than those without.
    "Pets provide unconditional love, companionship, connectedness -- and for some, a purpose," said Dr. Edward Creagan, a Mayo Clinic oncologist who frequently speaks on the correlation between pets and well-being. "There's a growing body of credible evidence that suggests that this is good medicine in many ways for what ails us."
   A search on Medline, a medical database, turns up many studies showing the health benefits of pet ownership.
     One of the most intriguing, published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 1995, found that having a pet may be even prolong one's life. In it, researchers followed more than 400 patients who were released from hospitalization after having heart attacks. Pet owners had a significantly higher one-year survival rate than non-pet-owners, even after accounting for such other factors as the severity of heart disease.
     Another large study published in an Australian medical journal in 1992 also found that having pets is heart-healthy. Researchers compared cardiovascular-disease risk factors in more than 5,000 people. Pet owners had lower blood pressure and levels of triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood that's linked with heart disease) than non-pet-owners. The authors concluded that pet owners are at lower risk for heart attack and heart disease than those without companion animals.
    Dozens of other studies document health benefits that extend beyond cardiovascular disease.
     Among the most recent is a study published in the March 1999 Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Scientists found that senior citizens who own pets are more active than those without pets, and are are less likely to experience depression -- a common and serious mental illness in older adults.
     Even AIDS patients may benefit from having an animal friend, according to a study published in the April 1999 journal AIDS Care. Those who own pets are also less likely to suffer from depression, even as symptoms from this frightening disease become more severe.

Rx: Get a pet
   So what is it about pets that keeps people healthy? Theories abound. Some researchers speculate that companion animals help people relax, which in turn reduces stress.
    Others believe that pets' needs, such as dogs needing a walk, keep people more physically active, thus helping them stay fit and at a healthy weight. Still others say that pets help keep people connected to their community -- something that other researchers have found plays a key role in longevity and well-being.
    Creagan believes the answer is all of the above. And he'd say so even without all the studies to back him up.
    "It's just common sense," said Creagan, adding that it doesn't really matter what type of pet you have. "When you pet a dog, stroke a cat on your lap or enjoy [any] animal, something good happens. There's a feeling of contentment and joy from the unconditional love an animal brings into your life."
     While no physician is likely to write "Get a pet" on a prescription pad, health-care providers across the country are recognizing animals' unique role in helping people stay healthy.
     Nursing homes, for example, frequently have programs in which volunteers bring in companion animals for patients. Some even keep animals on the premises full-time. This so-called "Eden approach" tries to take the institutional feel out of care facilities.
      Children's hospitals in the Twin Cities and elsewhere also use pets to help kids recover. At Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul, volunteers have been bringing in friendly dogs for years, much to young patients' delight.
     Patients at Children's Hospitals in Minneapolis and St. Paul also have frequent visits from furry friends, according to child-life specialist Christi Kegley.
     "[Animals] just change the whole environment. Before a visit, people are intense and on edge," Kegley said. "When they're there, things calm down. Even the staff feels good."
    Kegley believes that visits from pets can make the hospital seem less intimidating and more home-like, because so many kids have pets at home and miss them. It also helps them concentrate on something besides how they feel, she said.
    Then there's the sense of peace and relaxation that only an animal can bring.
     "For a child just out of surgery, the touch and feel of the fur of a dog or kitten is very calming and therapeutic," Kegley said. "Many times a parent will say that the first time their child smiled in the hospital was when an animal visited."
     Creagan, who owns Brinkley, a retriever mix, also recognizes the value of pets in healing his patients. Patients' pet names become part of his medical records and he always makes sure to ask patients how their dog, cat or fish is faring. Even when the outlook is grim, Creagan believes, the bond that pet owners share can help a patient.
    "Everybody has pet stories and everybody laughs when they talk about their dog or cat," Creagan said. "Even in the most depressing clinical environment, talking about a pet can add an important lightness to the situation."
     Creagan and others caution, however, that pets are not for everyone. Pets may not be a good idea for those with allergies, compromised immune systems or other chronic conditions. Of course, there might be a right pet for just about anyone -- for example, a fish, which also does not require intensive care. When uncertain, Creagan said, check with a physician first.
     In addition, the Humane Society of America also recommends that potential pet owners keep these considerations in mind:

  •  Cost. Pets' food, medical care and other needs can quickly add up. On average, dog owners spend about $450 a year to take care of their animal. Cat owners spend about $400. Those on limited or fixed incomes may be unable to afford such a companion animal.
  •   Housing. Are pets allowed where you live? For homeowners, this may not be a problem. But it often is for renters.
  •   Lifestyle. It may be difficult for those who travel often, or spend winters elsewhere, to have a pet. Those with young children also may want to wait to get a pet.

  •      For most people, however, the benefits of pet ownership outweigh the disadvantages, according to Creagan. "I think it's one of the best things people can do to stay healthy and happy."

    -- Jill Burcum writes about consumer health issues and has a support network that includes Lassie the border collie and two cats, Fernley Beangrab and Purrpat. She can be reached at 612-673-7846.

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