Living Well

How pets can improve health

Dr. Sandra Spedale
How pets can improve health

Pets can be the best prescription for some medical issues

Shortly after the national lockdown due to coronavirus, animal shelters across the country were urgently calling for families to foster dogs and cats, as caring for so many animals would be extremely difficult during the lockdown. In New York, one shelter needed 200 foster homes and was overwhelmed by 2,000 applications, and this story played out across the country. Today, thousands of families are now caring for animals they had no intention of owning just months ago. For many, these pets have become the only prescription they needed to get through the pandemic, and there’s a medical reason for that.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points to numerous studies showing that owning a pet can make the household happier and healthier. Research shows that pets can:

  • Improve mood: interacting with an animal promotes the release of oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone our bodies produce that makes us feel happy, thus lowering the feelings of loneliness and depression.
  • Reduce blood pressure: those who interact with animals tend to be less stressed, and this can lower blood pressure.
  • Reduce pain, especially chronic pain: it has been reported that people with migraines or fibromyalgia reduced pain after spending just 10 minutes with a therapy dog.

Pets can also give us structure and routine in our lives, and that was much needed during the height of the pandemic, as so much of what we typically did, came to a complete halt. Regardless of what was going on, pets needed to be fed and walked, and for many people, it was a pet that got them up and moving in what was otherwise a very surreal time. One study during COVID concluded that nearly half of the pet owners questioned said their four-legged loved one significantly decreased their feeling of being overwhelmed and panicked during the quarantine.

From the oldest to the youngest, pets can greatly impact the quality of life

Seniors often find themselves living alone with little interaction with the outside world, especially today, when seniors are known to be at greatest risk for COVID-19. "Having a pet can help seniors with loneliness and depression, and even getting a little exercise as they play with or even walk around the house with a dog or cat," says Dr. Spedale. "For those seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s, research also shows that having some interaction with an animal can substantially improve behavior by reducing aggression and agitation."

Seniors aren’t the only ones who can psychologically benefit from having some interaction with a pet. Young children, especially those with ADHD, autism, or some other form of an intellectual disability, can benefit as well. Again, an animal promotes structure in daily living. Pets require scheduled feeding and walking, which helps children stay focused, learn responsibility, and even get some exercise. Social interaction is also greatly enhanced when a child plays outdoors with a dog, as it will encourage others to join in or at least stop to pet the dog and talk to the owner.

More importantly, animals offer unconditional love and acceptance; a pet doesn’t care how you look or if you have a disability. As long as you care for them, they love you back, unconditionally, and that can promote much-needed self-confidence in a child struggling with ADHD or some other issue.

Steps you should take to make sure you get the right pet

Before getting a pet, owners should do their research into what kind of dog or cat they want and then ask themselves a few questions before committing to owning an animal, such as:

  • How much time can I commit to the animal? Many people are working from home right now, but what happens when life returns to normal? How much time do you have to commit to an animal, and if you realize not that much, maybe getting a cat is best as cats don’t demand as much attention as a dog.
  • What size animal and temperament can I handle? Puppies are cute, but they grow up! Make sure you know how big the animal you want will get and if the breed’s temperament works with your family dynamic. Some dogs are hyper, and that can create chaos rather than calmness.
  • How much can I financially spend on an animal? Owning a pet is an expense as they need food, medications and other items. It’s estimated that the first year of a small dog’s life will cost over $1,400, and a little more than $1,000 for a cat, so know your budget before becoming an owner.
  • And lastly, consider longevity and if you’re looking at buying an animal with a long lifespan, like a bird or turtle. Some species can live for 50 years, so make sure you have a long-term care plan if you have an animal that could potentially outlive you.

Regardless if it’s a goldfish or a Great Dane, animals can bring an overwhelming amount of joy and laughter into a family, and during these extremely stressful times, having an animal may be the only ‘medicine’ you need to get through everything.



About Dr. Spedale: 
Dr. Spedale specializes in Internal Medicine at West Jefferson Medical Center Primary Care. With over 20 years of experience, she continues to practice because she feels a vested stake in the health of her patients. Her interests include alternative and holistic medical concepts as well as preventative medicine. She has a strong foundation in basic science and traditional medicine.