PAWSitive InterAction held their second annual summit on pets and the aging, hosted by Emory University by Emory Center for Health in Aging. The summit brought together researchers working in the field to present scientific research and case studies that validate the beneficial effects of human-animal relationships. Science is finally substantiating what millions of pet owners have known intuitively for years; pets help and heal. Here are some examples:

1. PETS DECREASE BLOOD PRESSURE: Karen Allen, Ph.D., State University of New York, Buffalo, found that stockbrokers on medication for hypertension who were assigned to get a pet experienced half the increase in blood pressure during stressful situations as those without a pet. In fact, many of the stockbrokers in the “no pet” group went out and got a pet following the six month study.

2. PETS DECREASE STRESS LEVELS BETTER THAN A SPOUSE: The same group, in another study, showed that having a pet present during stressful situations, such as completing mental math problems or submerging a hand in ice water for two minutes, reduced the pet owner’s stress level more than a spouse or close friend. Participants made the most math errors when their spouses were present. Dogs and cats were equally capable of providing stress relief.

3. PETTING A DOG MAKES PEOPLE FEEL GOOD: Petting a dog makes people feel good, but, until now, mechanistic research as to why this happens has been limited. Johannes Odendaal, DVSc, Ph.D., of Technikon Pretoria in South Africa, considered a pioneer in this field, says both dogs and people experience beneficial hormone changes in endorphins, beta phenylethylamine, prolactin, dopamine and oxytocin within 15 minutes of a quiet interaction. There is also a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol in the person.

Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., RN, of the University of Missouri-Columbia Center for the study of Animal Wellness, is following up on Odendaal’s work. Her group has preliminary data supporting Odendaal’s work and is looking at additional brain chemicals, such as serotonin. Johnson, in collaboration with Richard Meadows, University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine, is also trying to determine if the biochemical changes result from a happy interaction or if something within the living animal itself triggers the response. To find out, they are asking whether the beneficial human biochemical changes that occur with dogs still occur if the animal is made of metal, a robotic dog. The results won’t be out for about a year, reports Johnson. The results could suggest new ways to treat a variety of human ailments.

4. HEART ATTACK VICTIMS WITH PETS LIVE LONGER: Researchers from the Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Brooklyn College found that heart attack sufferers who owned a dog were eight-times more likely to survive one year after the heart attack. Other studies show that patients with cardiovascular disease that own a dog are more active, exercise more and have lower serum cholesterol.

5. ALZHEIMER PATIENTS EAT MORE WHILE WATCHING FISH: Alan Beck, D.V.M, from the Center for the Human-Animal bond, School of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University, found that Alzheimer’s patients who ate meals in view of an aquarium ate 21-percent more and gained 1.65 pounds over 16 weeks compared with control groups. Fish-watchers also required less nutritional supplementation during this time, which resulted in health care cost savings.

6. CHILDREN WITH PETS HAVE HIGHER READING SCORES AND MORE EMPATHY: Sociologist Robert Poresky, Kansas State University, found children who spend time with their companion animals are more empathetic and learn responsibility earlier. They may even have higher IQs than children without pets. The R.E.A.D. program, run by the Intermountain Therapy Animals in Salt Lake City, Utah, reports that children who have trouble reading drastically improve when they read to dogs. They say animals can be ideal reading companions because they help increase relaxation, are attentive listeners, and they don’t judge or criticize.

7. PETS HELP SENIORS: P. Raina, Ph.D., from the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada reports that seniors with pets can perform simple daily living tasks, such as getting in and out of bed, eating, bathing, and dressing, better than non-pet owners.

Using the UCLA loneliness scale, William Banks, M.D., of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in St. Louis, shows a 30-minute exposure to a companion animal significantly reduces loneliness in residents of long-term care facilities.

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