The Link Between Pets and Human Health
I greatly enjoy taking part in professional conferences that focus on the betterment of pet health and welfare. Such was the case at BlogPaws 2014, where I attended an inspiring lecture titled "Pets in the Family: Impact on Human Health — Zooeyia."
If you’ve not previously heard the term, zooeyia refers to beneficial effects companion animals have on human health. The word zooeyia is derived from the Greek roots of zoion (animals) and Hygeia (health). Zooeyia may sound like an exotic disease where animals serve as the source of infection for people (i.e., zoonosis, the spread of illness across species), but it’s actually the positive inverse of zoonosis.
Dr. Kate Hodgson, DVM, MHsSs, CCEMP, teamed with the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation (HABRI) to share aspects of the means by which pets can benefit the health of their owners, aspects that are backed up by scientific evidence, including:
Pets Can be Catalysts for Harm Reduction — Like Smoking Cessation
Society knows that smoking is harmful to humans and that people directly exposed to second-hand smoke are also at risk. The same principle applies to our companion canines and felines, as second-hand smoke and the toxic residues deposited on our clothes or environmental surfaces (i.e., third-hand smoke) pose serious health risks.
After all, pets groom themselves and can ingest toxins from their fur simply by keeping their coats clean. Additionally, pets are more likely than humans to lick the floor or other surfaces and thereby absorb layers of toxins.
Most cats’ lifestyle confines them indoors, so they are even more prone to the noxious effects of smoking, especially when it comes to cancer. Cats living in smoking households are more prone to oral squamous cell carcinoma, lymphoma, and mammary cancer. Brachycephalic dogs (“short faced,” like the Pug, English Bulldog, etc.) are affected by lung cancer, while dolichocephalic (“long faced,” like the Collie, Greyhound, etc.) commonly develop nasal cancer due to second-hand smoke exposure.
According to Tobacco Control 2009: 0:1-3: “The dangers of pet exposure to second-hand smoke is motivation to owners to quit or attempt to quit smoking, motivate household members to quit, and to forbid smoking inside the home.”
The fact that a pet’s presence can prompt a person to quit smoking shows that veterinarians play a key role in educating owners about the negative implications their habits have on their pets. Thereby, the health of the owner is also benefitted but such awareness.
Pets Can be Motivators of Healthy Lifestyle Choices — Like Physical Exercise
We all know that exercise should be part of our daily lives, but for many Americans this awareness isn't enough incentive for them to get up and move for the sake of their health.
Pets, especially dogs, can be great motivation for owners to increase their physical activity. The PPET (People Pets Exercising Together) Study showed that owners who regularly exercised with their dogs stuck with their workout plan as compared to participants lacking canine companionship during exercise.
Dogs are great motivators because they often initiate exercise (needing to be taken out to urinate and defecate), add enjoyment to activities, and are a source of "parental pride.”
Of course, before you start on an exercise program with your canine companion, schedule an examination with your veterinarian.
Pets Can be a Therapeutic Intervention to Treat Illness — Helping to Manage Stress, Anxiety, or Depression
The presence of a pet in the household can provide an owner with a variety of mental health benefits, including a sense of attachment, emotional and social well-being, and decreased feelings of isolation occurring during psychiatric illness.
According to Hypertension, 2001: 38:815-820: “Pets provide non-judgemental social support intervention that buffers pathogenic responses to stress.”
Although our feline companions don’t necessarily get us up and moving like their canine counterparts do, cat ownership “significantly reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and associated death.” One health yielding benefit of having a cat is the relaxing and blood pressure-lowering effect associated with gently stroking your furry friend’s back.
Although managing my own dog’s current battle with cancer is stressful, I feel grateful for the positive contributions he provides to my physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Cardiff’s presence in my life exemplifies zooeiya, as he makes me slow down, be patient, and focus on prioritizing his and my health on a daily basis.
For further information on the means by which pets complement human health, see Zooeyia: An essential component of “One Health”.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney
Image: MrTinDC / Flickr