Want to live a healthy, happy life? Get a pet

The RSPCA says studies have shown pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol than

The RSPCA says studies have shown pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol than non-pet owners and can be less depressed and less lonely. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ ISTOCKPHOTO - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

From lower levels of stress and depression to reduced risk of heart disease, the latest evidence suggests owning a pet is a healthy choice. Sheena Grant finds out more and talks to animal lovers about the difference pets have made to their lives.

Lily the therapy dog with owner, Anne Goad.
Photo: Clive Tagg

Lily the therapy dog with owner, Anne Goad. Photo: Clive Tagg - Credit: photo: Clive Tagg

Everyone knows they should exercise and eat their share of fruit and veg for good health. But should the boffins who give us guidelines on wellbeing and longevity add something else to their advice? On to the latest evidence, perhaps they should be telling us all to get a pet too.

A recent study found pet ownership could help save the NHS up to £2.45 billion a year, simply by reducing the number of times people visit their doctor. The calculation’s based on the influence that owning a pet has on mental and physical health, plus lower rates of illnesses and better wellbeing among pet-owners.

James Yeates, chief vet at the RSPCA, says: “Besides the enjoyment they bring, having furry friends in your home can have a number of health advantages - several studies have shown pet owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol than non-pet owners and can be less depressed and less lonely.”

Anne Goad, who lives in Coddenham, has personal experience of the difference pet ownership can make. She adopted a former stray, called Lily, from the Dogs Trust in January 2016.

Inca is a Pets as Therapy (PAT) dog who, together with her owner Sheena Scrimgeour, is a regular vis

Inca is a Pets as Therapy (PAT) dog who, together with her owner Sheena Scrimgeour, is a regular visitor to many patients receiving care from Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT). Photo: Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust - Credit: supplied by Norfolk and Suffolk

Lily soon slotted seemlessly into community life, attending church services with Anne and visiting the village’s over 55s group, where she lapped up attention.

“She has a very busy life,” says Anne. “And she’s changed my life for the better. I live on my own so she’s my companion; it’s very social when I go out walking with her and I get a lot of exercise too. Lily roots me in life in many ways. Playing with her lifts my spirits. We do agility and flyball together and are starting to compete as well. As part of that we go to a club, which is very socialable and builds relationships with others. When you’re single and live alone life can become quite insular. Taking Lily out means I bump into people and we stop and chat.”

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And it’s not only Anne’s life that Lily has enriched. Anne soon noticed that despite her energetic nature, Lily was gentle and calming with a family member who had an acquired brain injury.

Since then, the collie cross has joined the charity Headway Suffolk’s ‘Brainy Dog’ programme, which trains therapy and companion dogs for patients with acquired brain injuries and dementia.

“Lily is amazing with the residents (at the Baylham Care Centre),” says Anne. She visits them twice a week and laps up all the love and snuggles.”

The pair have also just started visiting a special needs school.

“It’s lovely to see the effect she has on the lives of other people, as well as mine,” says Anne. “You can’t help but feel good about it.”

Anne and Lily’s story is far from unusual.

Sheena Scrimgeour’s eight-year-old Labrador-cross Inca is a Pets as Therapy (PAT) dog and has made such a difference to the lives of patients receiving care from the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT) in Norfolk that she has been entered in the PAT Dog of the Year competition.

Julie Warren, NSFT chaplain and spiritual care lead, says: “Inca’s calming, gentle personality and warm approach makes you feel like you are the only person in the world she loves. My own wellbeing, along with that of our service users, continues to be ‘uplifted’ by Inca (and Sheena’s) presence. It is hard to put into words the impact Inca has. You feel her presence in your heart.”

Sheena, who lives in Hellesdon, said: “I’ve been really touched by the notes I’ve received from people who have benefitted from Inca’s visits. I met one lady whose daughter credits Inca with saving her life – she said she lived for her visits. I also received a beautiful story from a man in prison who said meeting Inca had changed his life. She really seems to help people get through challenging times.

“I’ve always wanted my dogs to have a rich and varied life so decided to volunteer with the (PAT) charity after I retired. I’m really interested in research which shows the benefits animals can bring to people. They are great for mental and physical wellbeing, help people to manage stress and lower the pulse and blood pressure. All in all, they provide people with a real ‘feel good’ factor.”

A spokesperson for the Dogs Trust, which has a rehoming centre at Snetterton, said: “We all know that dogs offer companionship and make us happy, but they also provide wider health benefits too. Dog owners are generally healthier than non-dog owners and make fewer visits to their GP. Owning a dog can also help reduce stress and anxiety, boost your immune system and help to safeguard against depression.

“If you love dogs but your lifestyle isn’t right for one, volunteering as a dog walker at your local animal rescue centre can be a wonderful way to enjoy the company of a dog and give something back too.”

Six reasons why pets can be good for your health

1. Unconditional love: however bad your day’s been, you’ll have someone who depends on you to shower you with affection. The British Medical Journal says the emotional bond between owner and pet can be as intense as that in many human relationships, and may confer similar psychological benefits.

2. Routine: the responsibilities that come with owning a pet can give your day purpose, reward and a sense of achievement. Regular routines and rituals can help energy management and support mental space.

3. Lower risk of heart disease: it may be that dog owners naturally do more exercise, but pets also play a role in providing social support. Owning a cat has also been associated with a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and stroke.

4. Socialising: pets can act as a social icebreaker between strangers, or as a catalyst for social interaction. Research suggests dog-walkers experience significantly higher social capital (interactions and relationships) than non-dog-walkers, meaning they’re less likely to be lonely.

5. Boost to mental wellbeing: studies have found that dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets. Pets can also reduce stress and anxiety levels, while playing with a dog or cat can elevate levels of the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine, which help you feel calm and relaxed. The Mental Health Foundation notes similar effects have been associated with stroking pets.

6. Improving child health: younger family members will also flourish with the presence of a four-legged friend. Children brought up with pets tend to have more stable immune systems, and growing up with pets has also been found to improve social skills. Pet ownership also teaches responsibility and compassion.

To find out more about adopting a pete visit rspca.org.uk/findapet or www.dogstrust.org.uk. To support Pets as Therapy, visit http://petsastherapy.org/.

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