pet owners live longer healthierNew findings reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirm the old adage that a dog really is “man’s best friend.” There are many healthy benefits of pet ownership for people of all ages. Many people are aware of previous studies indicating that children who grew up on farms developed less allergies. These new findings go a step further.

Lead author, Dr. Dennis Ownby and his team from the Medical College of Georgia, followed almost 500 children from birth to age 7. They compared the groups exposed to pets, particularly cats and dogs, during the first year of their life with other children who did not have pet exposure.

The children who interacted with pets from an early age developed fewer allergies. But more impressive was the fact that the children with more than one pet developed 77% fewer allergies, not only to pets, but also to other common allergens such as ragweed, dust mites and distinct grasses.

The researcher and his team surmise that early exposure to microbes that accompany pet interaction build a stronger immune system that is less likely to be fooled into thinking that particles of dander and dust mites are actually particles it needs to fight. When a child’s immune system can develop properly with exposure to a healthy range of common everyday microbes, less auto-immune reactions, including allergies, develop.

The benefit of pet ownership is not limited to childhood exposure. Experts in Australia followed the recovery of stroke victims who took on a companion cat as a “buddy” during their recovery period. Patients with an animal companion had significantly better outcomes. In another study of 4000 patients, the presence of a pet companion was correlated to a 33% reduction in death by heart attack.

Pets alleviate stress and keep adults moving. For those who are isolated or without many friends or relatives, a pet gives a reason to be needed and may inspire patients to follow doctor’s orders more effectively. The benefits of regular visits with therapy pets and volunteering with animals at a rescue shelter can also offer healthy rewards in cases where personal pet ownership is not possible.

Educating patients and their families about the benefits of boosting health with a furry dose of companion animal “medicine” is just one of many holistic ways nurses and other health care providers can help meet the needs of their patients.

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