Healthy Outlook: Pets can benefit our health
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
It never ceases to amaze me to see pet lovers’ reactions when their beloved furballs come up in conversation.
Even the toughest facades tend to crumble — at least a little bit — at the mere mention of the loving counterparts that make so many of us whole.
But besides the hugs, kisses, snuggles, cuddles and belly scratches, and beyond the wet noses, wagging tails, kneading paws, nuzzling furry faces and the delighted greetings, whether you’ve been gone five minutes or five days — pets can benefit our health.
According to online resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Studies have shown that the bond between people and their pets can increase fitness, lower stress, and bring happiness to their owners.”
The health benefits of pet ownership that the CDC lists include decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels and feelings of loneliness, as well as increased opportunities for exercise, outdoor activity and socialization.
Power of pets
Some in the local community have harnessed the power of pets to help people. For instance, several of Lawrence’s public schools have certified therapy dogs, such as Lawrence High’s golden retriever, Roxy. Local nonprofit Loving Paws Animal Therapy Program Inc. serves several local facilities, including the University of Kansas, other schools and children’s groups, shelters and long-term care centers throughout Lawrence and Douglas County.
photo by: Journal-World File Photo
Less common, though, is the use of cats in professional practice.
Lawrence psychologist Wes Crenshaw first brought the roughly 6-year-old Grace into his Family Psychological Services office in 2013, and she’s become a fixture there.
“I did have one person literally come in and say, ‘I decided when I saw your ad … that I need to see a guy with a cat,'” Crenshaw said.
photo by: Wes Crenshaw/Contributed Photo
Although she’s not a certified therapy animal, Grace has benefited the practice’s clients.
“The touching of the animal, research has shown, will reduce blood pressure, will calm people,” Crenshaw said. “I have people who come in and Grace can kind of recognize that they’re upset, and she’ll go sit with them — it’s weird, I kid you not — and they start petting her and they start calming down.”
Lessons from four-legged friends
Additionally, pets can help teach about consent, Crenshaw said. Grace is a good example — she won’t always sit on patients’ laps when they want her to, and it’s her choice.
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“We always talk about how, even with an animal, making it do what you want it to do is a violation of consent,” Crenshaw said.
Grace has even made some of Crenshaw’s clients want to adopt pets of their own, but that’s a decision that can’t be taken lightly.
“Cats certainly can help people develop a sense of responsibility. We overdo this sometimes in middle school kids, and so if you think a kid is going to take care of an animal, good luck with that,” he said, “but when they’re a little older, for young adults, having a pet that’s not too difficult to take care of can really help you feel like you’re responsible for something other than yourself, and that can be good.”
From the perspective of learning to care for pets, cats may be a better option for some. Dogs tend to require more training and trips outside to use the bathroom, plus walks and so on.
Crenshaw sees a lot of young adults in his practice, many of whom want to become pet parents.
“The problem with dogs at that age is that college kids cannot manage a dog, and they think they can, and the dog doesn’t benefit and the person doesn’t benefit,” he said. “But with a cat, they are more easy to handle. They’re something a college student can be responsible for and be successful.”
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Parents of younger kids should also keep in mind that oftentimes, kiddos will tire quickly of the responsibilities involved in caring for pets.
“It’s fine to have the external expectation that the kid is part of the care, but you need to know in the back of your mind, it’s ultimately your responsibility,” Crenshaw said.
He said it can help to make those processes less about the actual chores and more about caring for the cat: “Talk with them about how the cat suffers if you don’t feed it and care for its box.”
Of course there are plenty of options for pets that aren’t cats and dogs. Also, though it’s rare, it is possible for animals to spread diseases to humans. The CDC lists many common and less common pets with specific advice to handle them safely online at cdc.gov/healthypets.
Searching for purrfection
One other challenge in selecting a pet is considering its personality. Oftentimes, Crenshaw said, animals may not turn out to be the cuddly type that many have in mind when they set out to adopt a furbaby. Those looking for a pet that will curl up in bed with them every night, for example, may be disappointed when that doesn’t happen, and it can feel like a major rejection.
“Kids take that stuff personally, and so they feel like, ‘Well, even my cat doesn’t love me,’ or something like that,” Crenshaw said.
One way to potentially avoid that problem is to select an animal that’s not a baby, Crenshaw said, “so that you can really feel out the personality of the animal.”
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
I would vouch for that. Today, Sept. 9, is my cat’s golden birthday. My little green-eyed calico Delilah (aka Lilah) is turning 9, and she seems to get sweeter and cuddlier with each passing year. She was 6 months old when we fell in love at first pet — just entering her adolescence and nearly full-grown. Although at times she still displays an impish kitten’s personality, she’s full of love, and she enjoys nothing more than showing it.
Pets won’t replace your medications or cure what ails you, but the research does show that they can help make their humans’ lives healthier. Some might say people rescue their pets, but I think most pet owners know the opposite can be equally true.
About Healthy Outlook
Healthy Outlook is a column written by Journal-World reporter and Health section editor Mackenzie Clark, in hopes of helping readers make their lives a little bit happier, healthier and more active.
Have questions about the world of health and wellness in Lawrence, or a health story idea? Contact Mackenzie:
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