Barking up the right tree

Irish Medical News

View 13 July 2009
Barking up the right tree

It’s official – having a pet is good for our health, writes Mari Gallagher.

Forget about the global economic slump, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the thorny issue of climate change; during the third week of April 2009, one small four-legged woolly bundle dominated world news. The arrival of Bo, official first dog, to the Obama family home in the White House was broadcast and discussed worldwide.

A YouTube clip of Bo’s first cavort with his relaxed and good-humoured new family, presided over by an enthusiastic press corps, shows the most powerful man in the world joining the pet owners club to which a massive 57 per cent of American households already belong. While US President Barack Obama was merely fulfilling a promise to his children (to get a dog in return for the upheaval of having to move house should he win the presidency) in introducing Bo – a Portuguese water dog – to his household, he was also securing a wide range of health benefits for his family.

Only last year, research published in Newsweek magazine informs us that pet ownership is good for both your physical and psychological health. Biologist Erika Friedman, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing tells us that pet ownership has been shown to be particularly good for psychological health, because it “provides a focus of attention that’s outside of someone’s self. Pets let you focus on them rather than focusing inward on yourself all the time”.

Pet owners, we are told, are likely to have higher self worth and are less inclined to suffer from loneliness or depression. Not only do pets provide company and unconditional love, they can help reduce stress and blood pressure in owners, increase longevity in people who have had heart attacks and even relax and improve appetites in Alzheimers’ patients.

In the case of dogs, they also force pet owners out for walks, thereby providing the dual benefits of physical exercise and socialisation. You have only to witness the numbers of people out striding with their dogs, pausing to chat, while their beloved pets size each other up, to realise how sociable taking a dog for a walk can be.

Further studies by Australia’s Baker Medical Institute of 6,000 people found that those who had pets in their homes experienced lower blood pressure and healthier cholesterol levels.

Mr Obama is probably also aware that owning a dog or cat can boost children’s immune systems. Research from the Warwick University in Coventry, UK, suggests that children who have pets at home are less likely to take days off sick from school. The research found that children having a dog or cat at home are exposed to more infections in early life and the exposure boosted their immune systems.

At this juncture, it is appropriate to confess, that I have never been a “pet person”. Having spent my childhood on a farm, my attitude towards animals has always been pragmatic. Cats, dogs and cattle were not pets. Cats were kept to ensure mice and rats stayed away from our store of animal feed. Dogs were the equivalent of a burglar alarm. Cows and calves were our livelihood. Throughout my life, my response to the imminent approach of a cat has been to hiss the word “shoo”. However, recent events have forced me to take stock of that attitude.

The sudden tragic loss of a very dear family member left our household in the throes of grief. My 10-year-old son, in particular, experienced the loss of his aunt and godmother quite keenly and moped around in perpetual gloom. Until the arrival of a stray cat, who sashayed around the back window and miaowed with fevered determination. The cat, since christened Jess, climbed onto my son’s willing lap and with a purr that was nothing short of hypnotic, rubbed her forehead seductively against his cheek.

Their relationship flourished, despite my reservations about her presence in the house. Each morning, she miaowed under his bedroom window until he awoke, threw on his clothes and rushed down to let her in. Her presence brought a smile back on his face at a very difficult time. The only word I can now utter when Jess appears, in all her miaowing glory at our back door is “respect”.

Consequently, I’m delighted to include, in honour of our new family member Jess, a piece of research from a 2008 University of Minnesota, USA study which found that cat owners, in particular, were 40 per cent less likely to have a fatal heart attack than those without cats.

The addition of a pet to the American presidential household was a matter of much relevance to many people and the footage of Bo and accompanying discourse on Bo’s habits and impact on the family, a refreshing break from the deluge of doom and gloom reporting that has tumbled on our heads in recent times.

As the late author Samuel Butler so accurately put it: “All of the animals, except for man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.”