Health Benefits of Having a Pet

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Do you dote on your dog? Do you cater to your cat? Those human-animal bonds can have positive psychological and physiological consequences. Our guest Alan Beck discussed the health benefits we get from having a pet. He joined us on August 11, 2005 from Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Today Alan Beck joins us. He is director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond, Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine. Welcome to WebMD Live, Alan. Do you have pets?

I now have two dogs. Both rescue, both crossbred. A "doxiewowa," a cross between a Dachshund and a Chihuahua, a name my wife invented. My other dog is Italian greyhound something or other. Both wonderful, both hyperactive.

My dogs are Ella Fitzgerald who is a wonderdog: part golden retriever, part German shepherd, part something else; and Molly Goldberg, a miniature beagle. I know how wonderful I feel having these dogs in my life. What have you at the Center for the Human-Animal Bond found about the connection between people and their pets?

Good question. People have known that animals were important ever since we lived in villages. In the last 20 years, it has become apparent that animal interaction impacts on human health in many positive ways.

The major mechanism appears to be that we include our animals as family members and good human contact is, of course, very healthy. Many of the positive behaviors we do with each other we do with our animals with the same positive outcomes.

We include animals to help us feel less lonely, to have something to talk to and think out loud, to have something to touch and to be touched, to provide care. We love caring and being nurturing and animals are always there for us.

And different species play different roles. One role that birds and fish play is it a focus of attention. Any time your mind can focus on something that's pleasant, without being overly stimulating, you feel better.

For other people animals encourage exercise, dogs especially. In fact, dog owners walk more often and longer than non-owners of the same age. And no one doubts the value of routine exercise.

Also of course, animals encourage laughter. We find much humor in playing with our animals, in watching them, in humor that uses animals because it's very nonjudgmental. Animals can tell a funny story, like in newspaper cartoons, without hurting anybody's feelings. Animals have really no important gender or race or age that interferes with our relationship.

"Animals encourage social contact between people."

Lastly, animals encourage social contact between people. We are a social species and we find great comfort in each other's company. Our studies and others have shown that people with animals are actually viewed by others as being nicer, better people. Of course, politicians have used that effect for years, and you'll always see when a politician gets in trouble they get a dog, sometimes a cat.

That attribution we make serves very nicely to help socialize people, perhaps even more important for people who are stigmatized, and it's probably one of the roles therapy animals play. So if you look at how we interact with our animals, it is not surprising at all that there are important health benefits in our relationships with them.

Whenever anyone in the family is sick, the dog seems to know it and stays with the sick one. Is this common?

Many social species, including humans, dolphins, and dogs, notice when a member of the group needs more attention. And dogs are particularly sensitive to human behaviors and often even anticipate it. They are incredibly observant of the most minor, nonverbal behaviors. It is common that a dog senses a "pack" member who is behaving differently and orients to that person and tries to bring comfort.

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