Consumer Reports Insights

Having a Pet May Improve a Person's Health

Tuesday, July 7, 2009; 11:27 AM

Caring goes both ways. People who take good care of their pets protect them -- and the whole household -- by preventing diseases from entering the home.

And pets can take care of people, too. They "stimulate talk, provide touch, ease loneliness^, and facilitate social interaction with others," says Alan M. Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine.

All of which may explain why research has linked pet ownership with better emotional health and maybe even better physical health.

Pets may boost health by:

*Encouraging physical activity. An insistent dog whining at the door or a playful one eager for a romp can get you out of the house for some exercise.

*Speeding rehab. Perhaps by easing stress, pets help patients recover faster from heart attacks, strokes and surgery.

*Soothing Alzheimer's patients. Nursing homes often have pets visit because good memories can surface when residents touch the animals.

*Preventing allergies. Children who grow up around pets appear less prone to allergies, perhaps because early exposure to bacteria and viruses associated with pets may strengthen the kids' immunity.

*Boosting the heart. A study of 420 people with heart disease found that those with pets, especially dogs, lived longer than those without pets.

*Easing autism. Dogs may help children with autism by providing an outlet for social interaction. Dogs may promote social interaction in children with autism. And trained dogs can act as watchdogs, protecting the child.

Zoonosis: That's the medical term for disease that's transmitted from animals to humans. "Pets are increasingly becoming intimate members of the household, even sharing the kitchen and bedroom with humans," says Marty Becker, author of "The Healing Power of Pets." "So it's no surprise we're now at greater risk of zoonotic disease."

But several steps can minimize that risk and still allow owners the benefits of a pet prescription.

*See a vet once a year. The vet should check your pet's stool samples for giardia, a protozoan parasite that can trigger stomach problems in humans. He should also make sure the pet's vaccination record is up-to-date, especially to guard against rabies and leptospirosis. Leptospirosis, a bacterial infection once limited to Southern states, is now found across the country.

*Rein in pests. Regularly give medicines to protect your pet from ticks, which can spread Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever; fleas, which can cause rashes and, in rare cases, transmit the plague bacterium; and mosquitoes, which can transmit such parasites as hookworms.

*Practice good hygiene. Wash yourself after discarding waste and after playing with or being scratched by your pet.

*Special precautions. Cat feces sometimes contain toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that can spread from mother to fetus and cause birth defects. Further, it can harm people with weak immune systems, damaging their brain and lungs; these people should ask someone to empty the litter box for them.

Copyright 2009. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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