You’ve probably noticed that when you pet a soft, gentle cat or play fetch with a dog whose tail won’t stop wagging, you relax and feel a little better. In recent years, scientific studies have begun to pinpoint the ways in which companion animals actually do improve our minds and our bodies.

Caring for a companion animal can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and diminish feelings of loneliness and isolation. Pets teach us about love, and provide us with unconditional affection and friendship. They help people learn about responsibility, loyalty, empathy and sharing. Animal companionship also helps lower a person’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels. And studies show that having a dog increases survival rates in patients who have suffered cardiac arrest.

Dog walking, pet grooming and even petting provide increased physical activity that strengthens the heart, improves blood circulation and slows the loss of bone tissue.

If you’re older, a pet can offer you a sense of well-being and encouragement. When you’re responsible for another life it can add new meaning to your own life, and having to care for and provide a loving home to a companion animal can also help you remain active and healthy.

Combating Loneliness, Improving Health

Emotionally, pets can bring new meaning and purpose to the life of a senior who is living away from friends or family. They’re more active, cope better with stress, and have better overall health. There are a number of explanations for exactly how pets accomplish all these health benefits. Pets need walking, feeding, grooming, fresh water and fresh kitty litter, and they encourage lots of playing and petting. All of these activities require some action from owners.

Pets can also work as a buffer against social isolation. Often the elderly have trouble leaving home, so they don’t have a chance to see many people. Pets give them a chance to interact. This can help combat depression, one of the most common medical problems facing seniors today. Specially trained assistance dogs provide people who have physical and mental disabilities with the profound gift of independence. They serve as the hands, ears or eyes of their human partners, and assist them by performing everyday tasks that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. Dogs may also detect changes in behavior, body language, signs of oncoming seizures, and have even been shown to sense cancer in its early stages.

For years, organizations like Pets on Wheels and Therapy Dogs International have been bringing animals into hospitals, hospices, and assisted living homes to give seniors a chance to pet and play with them. The residents enjoy some therapeutic physical contact and a fun activity to break up their day.

Put simply, pets aren’t just good friends; they are good medicine.

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