Petting and Purring Your Way to Better Health

Pet owners, you probably already know the good news: that owning a pet can potentially boost your mental and physical health.

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You know how it goes: Fido greets you at the door after a long day at work, with his tail wagging and tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Or, Kitty circles between your legs, nudging you with his tiny head. A little rub behind the ears here, a butt scratch there and already you're feeling more comfortable, more at home. That comfortable feeling you get comes from an unconditional love, the type of love that your parents showed you. Pets pay attention to you and make you feel wanted and safe. They're a part of your home, so it's natural that a sense of safety comes with interacting with them.

Dogs specifically are darn smart, too: studies show that dogs have an area of the brain that is sensitive to the emotional tone of their owner, making them be extra snuggly with you when you are sad. In that regard, their ability to detect emotional cues is much like a human's. Drs. Kay Judge and Maxine Barish-Wreden wrote in an article for The Seattle Times that pets can even help young kids develop different emotions, such as empathy, and aid in their ability to socialize.

Naturally, pets boost your physical health because you are forced to be active with them. Taking the dog on a neighborhood walk was actually proven to be more effective for your physical health than walking with other people, so says Rebecca Johnson, PhD, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that all those walks add up to reduce your overall cholesterol, stress, blood pressure, and triglyceride levels. And for your young children, there is even more good news: children who were exposed to pets or farm animals before they were six months old had stronger immune systems and were less likely to develop allergies, asthma and eczema, says WebMD. And we can't forget the kitties: The vibrational purr of a cat has been shown to help heal soft tissue and promote bone strength.

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>> Check out these other 10 ways to reduce your blood pressure.

And pets, whether furry or scaly, large or small, help reduce the feeling of loneliness. If you have an animal, you're more likely to focus on him with a tennis ball in his mouth or the way he kneads your knees with his paws, rather than any negative thoughts you may have. It is a social bond, no less than a friendship or romance. Studies have shown that oxytocin, the love hormone that allows us to care for others, is released during human-animal interaction, for the human and sometimes for the animal! A human-animal relationship is also less likely to cause you stress than an interpersonal relationship.

More research is necessary in understanding the bond between human and animal, and getting that information isn't easy (a research group in Budapest had to get 11 pooches to lie motionless in MRI scanners for their study). Further investigation into what kinds of animals induce these benefits is needed: just the usual dog or cat, or the unusual iguana or tarantula, and do they provide the same kind of health benefits that have been previously noted? But, if your household has a pet, interact with him on a daily basis. The benefits could add up. And if you don't have a pet, maybe now is the time to reconsider.

>> Give Fido some homemade healthy treats!