Best Friends Are the Best Medicine

Raquell Heskett

Over the last 16 years, I have practiced in a variety of veterinary settings as a veterinarian whose role is to create healthy and strong bonds between pets and their owners. Almost every client at one point or another will tell me how much their pet means to them and that their pet is truly their best friend. Throughout my career I have come to appreciate this bond and recently became certified as a Human-Animal Bond Certified Practitioner from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI; www.habri.org). My passion for caring for animals drove me into this profession; however, it is through this continuing education program that my love and appreciation of our pets has been taken to the level of amazement and wonder. The bond and love we share with our pets extends beyond the emotional component and has been shown through research to provide a medical benefit to humans. Pets are more than best friends—they are the best medicine.

The human-animal bond is also known as “The Pet Effect” and is defined as “the positive effect that our dogs and cats have on our physical and emotional health,” according to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI). The goal of the research through organizations such as HABRI is to raise public awareness of the positive medical benefits pets have on our lives and to improve perception of pets and pet ownership. Some examples of the benefits shown through peer-reviewed research are:

■ A 20-year study of cat owners showed that the risk of dying by a heart attack was reduced by 40% compared to non-pet owners.

■ Childhood allergies are reduced by having a cat or dog in the house.

■ Pet ownership acts as a buffer against loneliness in a study of older adults who live alone.

■ Distress levels were lowered in dementia patients in residential care facilities when animal-assisted therapies were implemented. This, in turn, reduced distress levels in caregivers.

■ In cancer patients receiving chemotherapy in the hospital, animals were found to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression up to as much as 50%.

■ Dogs have been trained to detect various cancers in humans, including lung, bladder, prostate, colorectal, and ovarian cancers.

The list goes on, and I recommend visiting the HABRI website to view the amazing benefits pets provide to us and our communities as pet ownership is on an upward trend. A 2019- 2020 American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey revealed that 67% of U.S. households own a pet, compared to 56% of households in 1988, when the first survey was conducted. Of the 84.9 million homes that own a pet, 42.7 million own a cat and 63.4 million own a dog. During the pandemic, shelters were “running out of pets” and adoptions rose as people became isolated and turned to a pet for love and affection during uncertain times. Prior to the COVID vaccine rollout, the American public unknowingly turned to pets as preventive medicine.

During the pandemic, shelters were “running out of pets” and adoptions rose as people became isolated and turned to a pet for love and affection during uncertain times.

Interestingly, some of the main risk factors for COVID that we hear every day on the news include heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. Peer-reviewed scientific research supports the belief that these risk factors can be improved through pet ownership. Not surprisingly, 97% of doctors believe that pet ownership provides a medical benefit to their patients. One such study from the American Heart Association found people who own pets have lower diastolic and systolic blood pressure compared to people who do not own a pet. Other studies have shown that the risks of cardiovascular disease were also reduced among people who owned pets other than dogs and cats—pets such as fish, reptiles, and farm animals. The other two significant COVID risk factors, diabetes and obesity, can often be prevented through pet ownership, because pet owners walk more minutes per week than non-pet owners. All these proven benefits make it clear that pets truly contribute to healthier lives and better overall well-being for their owners. This was never more appreciated than during the past year, as we all dealt with the uncertainty of the COVID pandemic.

The pandemic took its toll on society in just about every aspect, and when we were all forced to stay home and quarantine, it was our pets that helped us get through those early stages of sudden change. Sadly, I have encountered people who have lost loved ones from the pandemic, and they tell me how much their pet has helped them through their difficult times. For those who cannot receive the vaccine for any number of medical or personal reasons, pets can help them get through the day, the week, and the year with their unconditional love and affection. The human-animal bond is more than just a physical bond—it is an emotional bond of love that can heal a broken heart in both the literal and figurative sense.

From a veterinarian’s perspective, I find this research fascinating and awe inspiring, giving more purpose to the work that I do. I have also come to appreciate that pets do not always have to have a fur coat and four feet— they can have scales, feathers, shells, hooves, eight legs, five eyes, etc. Whatever your pet may be, my role is to help strengthen your bond with that pet, to see how we are all truly connected, and to understand that when our pets are healthy, we are healthy.

Sources:

https://www.americanpetproducts.org/press_industrytrends.asp
https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/CIR.0b013e31829201e1
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