The Stress-Busting Health-Saving Power of a Pet

Before popping that pill, try adopting a pet

Posted May 19, 2010

Cute puppyYesterday, I had an unexpected moment of pure bliss. It had been a harrowing day in the medical clinic, and I've been a bit worn out overall.

I had been looking forward all day to curling up on the couch and escaping into a good book. Once home, my dog sidled up to me, his battered yellow duck in his mouth, using his eyes and multi-positional ears to create the most compelling, irresistible facial expression imaginable.

I sighed, looked regretfully at the couch, and then hooked his leash through his collar. Within minutes, we were out in the fresh night air. Though we walk the same boring urban route almost every night, he sets off down the sidewalk like an explorer who's sure he's minutes away from discovering the New World. The bouncing ears and perky tail bobbing so purposefully down the path in front of me suddenly filled me with a rush of absolute well-being. And I mean absolute.

When Faro came into my life, I thought I was doing him a favor. One sunny Sunday after church, a friend from the Los Cabos Humane Society (I was living in Mexico at the time) invited me out for coffee. She shared the story of Faro, the worst case of abuse that the local animal rescue group had ever seen. He had been found with his legs and snout bound with cruel wire, his front right leg broken, left to die in the hot August desert sun. They estimated that he had been there for about ten days when someone finally discovered him. The vets took three months to nurse him to health, and now they urgently needed a foster home. Could I take him in, just for a month?

That was a year and a half ago. I eventually moved back up to Canada, and Faro has been an unimaginable blessing - in the end, he did me the favor. He's an incredibly high energy dog (probably a mix of White German Shepherd, Lab, Husky and Pit Bull, based on other dogs that look like him) with a hysterical sense of humor, who never lets me out of his sight when he's home. He makes my life better, every single day. He's a godsend.

Here are some ways in which dogs (and pets) help our health and well-being:

1) Pets protect you from depression and boost your mood

A 1999 study from UCLA on men with AIDS found that those who had pets were much less likely to report symptoms of depression than those who didn't have pets. Anyone who has ever watched a dog indulge in a fit of uninhibited silliness will vouch for the fact that it's impossible not to laugh. Anyone who has ever cried and had their dog lick their hands or face, will know that it beats almost anything a human being could do to comfort you.

2) A dog gets you walking

Almost every day, I say a silent "thank you" as yet again I'm out in the sun, rain or moonlight, trotting after Faro. There's no way I would get this much fresh air, enjoy this much exercise, or regularly make the effort to drive to a nearby walk along the river, if it weren't for him. Regular exercise has been shown to be as effective for your mood as anti-depressant medication! Add a funny little dog to the mix, and the effect is more powerful than a really good piece of chocolate cake. Healthier, too.

3) Pets are a pill-free way to lower blood pressure

I've heard many times about research that shows that being around a pet lowers your blood pressure. I had a check-up the other day, and it appears that thanks to Faro my usual BP of 110/75 has dropped to 90/60 (I only usually see numbers like that in tiny 20-something Asian female patients). It's probably due to all the healthy laughter and twice-daily walks, too.

4) Pets calm and prevent harmful reactions to stress

A 2002 study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine found that cardiovascular reactivity to both psychological and physical stress was significantly less if a pet was around. In fact, a pet was found to be even more calming and protective than a spouse or a friend!

If you've been struggling and stressed, a pet might be just what you need, especially the furry kind with floppy ears, boundless silly energy, and unconditional love. Check out a shelter near you, or contact the Los Cabos Humane Society (www.humanesocietycabo.com), they send dozens of pets every year up to new homes in the U.S. and Canada.

Here's a photo of the first day Faro the Mexican street dog experienced Canadian snow (he LOVED it!):

Faro in the snow