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When I come home after a long day at the hospital or the studio, the greeting I get from my black Lab, Rosie—her whole body wiggling with happiness—always makes me smile, no matter how exhausted I feel. In our household, animals outnumber humans: We also have a rabbit, five hamsters, three cats (who spend a great deal of their time peering inquisitively at the hamsters), and two tropical fish. I admit I sometimes feel like a zookeeper. But even when the litter box needs cleaning or I have to coax my son, Oliver, to go outside and walk Rosie before bedtime, I can honestly say I’m happy to share my home with all 12 creatures.
If you’ve ever loved a pet, you know the kind of joy animals can bring. But I’m especially excited about the mounting evidence that they can improve our physical well-being, too. (Former president of the Mayo Clinic staff, Edward Creagan, MD, is so convinced of the healing powers of pets, he has literally prescribed them for a third of his cancer patients.) Here’s a look at how your health might benefit from an animal companion.

1. Reduced Risk of Allergies, Asthma, and Eczema

People with allergies produce antibodies—which can cause inflammation in the airways (asthma) or the skin (eczema)—in response to irritants like dander and saliva. But exposure to a pet during infancy may mean less chance of developing such reactions in adulthood—possibly, scientists speculate, because the immune system becomes desensitized to allergens. What’s more impressive is that this immune-stabilizing effect appears to begin before birth. A 2008 study showed that prenatal pet exposure lowers allergic antibody production in the umbilical cord.

2. Lower Blood Pressure

The simple act of petting an animal—or even gazing at an aquarium—results in a drop in blood pressure. And pets can have a longer-term impact on the cardiovascular system, too, as researchers discovered when they tracked 24 hypertensive stockbrokers who adopted a cat or dog. Pet ownership blunted the blood pressure response to mental stress; the traditionally prescribed hypertension drug did not.

3. A Stronger Heart

Researchers who followed 369 heart attack survivors in the landmark Cardiac Arrhythmia Suppression Trial found that dog owners had only a 1 percent chance of dying within a year, compared with a 7 percent chance for subjects who didn’t have a dog. A newer study, from 2009, found that people who had owned a cat at some point in their lives were 37 percent less likely to die of a heart attack than those who hadn’t.

4. Improved Fitness

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health revealed that dog owners were 34 percent more likely to complete the recommended minimum 150 minutes of exercise per week. Other research has shown that dog owners walk 19 more minutes a week on average, and that having a family dog increases physical activity among adolescents (a key finding as childhood obesity reaches epidemic proportions).

5. Greater Calm for Alzheimer’s Patients

And for their families. Much of the burden of this disease (which afflicts one in eight people 65 and older) falls on patients’ relatives, and I’ve seen it crush the spirit of even the most loving caretakers. But studies have revealed that Alzheimer’s patients have fewer anxious outbursts if an animal is present, and research shows that caregivers can feel less burdened as well, especially if the animal is a cat (perhaps because cats require little additional care).

A study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research found that even pet fish can help by facilitating healthy weight gain among Alzheimer’s patients, who often suffer from a lack of adequate nutrition. In the presence of an aquarium, patients who paced tended to sit still longer, while patients who were typically lethargic became more attentive. Both effects led to better eating at mealtimes.

Not everybody can bring home a furry or aquatic friend, of course. But if life circumstances (like long hours or a persnickety landlord) keep you from owning a pet, you can still experience the health perks of animals by volunteering with rescues in dire need of affection. Go to petfinder.com to look up shelters near you.

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