In 1996, McCall’s magazine published a column highlighting how different people relaxed, in which I described how watching my three dogs interact was soothing to me.
Not only did my dogs help me relax, their unique way of interacting, sharing the spotlight and taking or following the lead taught me much about how to interact with people in my own life. At the time I was running Special Programs for Montefiore Medical Center and private practices in Irvington and Chappaqua. I instinctively knew the dogs’ presence was a significant help to me even though the health benefits of having pets were not common knowledge or fodder for research.
Fifteen years later, science has caught up with what so many of us knew instinctively – pets help improve our health.
Today, as I get ready to write my fifth book, still see patients in two offices four days a week, write articles and participate in media events and even train physicians, the one thing that has kept me grounded and given me the proper perspective on my hectic life is always the comfort of my dogs.
While the wonderful dogs I had in 1996 are no longer here, a new generation of brilliant, loyal, loving and funny Dachshunds (Henry, Jasper and Teddy) keeps me in line and teaches me continuously how to be a better person. My health – thankfully great due to my being a follower of my own treatments with bioidentical hormones, diet, balanced exercise, my own supplements and eight hours of sleep – is even better due to the never-ending kisses and wonderful greetings I get at the end of every day from my dog family.
Now research shows that unless you’re someone who really dislikes animals or is too busy to care for pets, you will benefit tremendously from having a pet. Let us count the reasons why, shall we?
First, it’s virtually impossible to stay in a bad mood when a pair of loving puppy eyes meets yours, or when a super-soft cat rubs up against your hand. A recent study found that men with AIDS were less likely to suffer from depression if they owned a pet.
Secondly, the most commonly used drugs to treat hypertension aren’t as effective as having pets around. A fun study looked at groups of hypertensive New York stockbrokers who were given dogs or cats and found those with the pets had lower blood pressure and heart rates.
Thirdly, dog owners spend more time walking than non-pet owners, especially in urban settings. Indeed, owning a dog increases overall physical activity.
Fourthly, when we’re out walking, having a dog (or a cat) with us makes us more approachable and provides us with an opportunity to stop and talk to other people, thereby staving off social isolation, a big stressor for many.
Last but not least, pets are always there for you in ways that people aren’t. They give you love and companionship, are OK with total silence, keep secrets and are the best cuddlers. Studies have shown that nursing home residents reported less loneliness when visited by dogs than when they were visited by relatives. (Are you surprised?)
Pets are great listeners and research indicates that in stressful situations, people actually experience less anxiety when their pets are with them than when a supportive friend or even spouse is with them. (This may be partially due to the fact that pets don’t judge us. They just love us.)
For some, a pet can bring its own stress. However for most of us, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. For me, Long Haired Dachshunds are the best. But don’t take my advice. Just ask Jasper, Henry or Teddy.
Email Dr. Erika at Erika@drerika.com.