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Not just a furry friend: Can pets improve your life and health?

Jeremy Costello

Pets give you love and affection but can they be good for your health? Not only do pets bring people together but they can prolong your life and fill the need people have to take care of something, according to this week's guest.

Studies have shown that pets can be a driving force in patients doing better and living longer. Mayo Clinic Oncologist Dr. Edward Creagan joins us on "Take Care" to discuss how pets impact our lives -- potentially more than we impact theirs.

While the average animal doesn’t have the training to attend to medical needs like service dogs may, pets could have an impact on your health just by being around. Hormones like serotonin and dopamine are produced when taking care of or cuddling your pets and Dr. Allen Beck has conducted studies that have shown that even pets like fish can have an impact on Alzheimer’s patients.

“Dr. Beck did a study where members of a nursing community would typically eat by themselves following their usual routines. They would eat in their rooms or they would eat by themselves in the institutional cafeteria,” says Creagan. “He then performed a study where individuals would eat in the presence of a portable aquarium. Those individuals who ate in the presence of the aquarium had a statistically significant increase in quality of life, sense of well-being, muscle mass, and weight.”

Animals are seen as good companions to people that are older and living alone. They can give people a reason to get out of the house or do more. While some types of pets may not be ideal, any animal can help improve someone’s quality of life.

“But a cat, a fish, a bird can produce a surge of those life-enhancing hormones and it gives meaning and purpose. So one has to get out of the house to some extent too but the food, to bring the pet to the vet,” said Creagan.

While pets improve their owner’s lives and health, horses have been seen to provide therapeutic benefits as well. Equine therapy is becoming more popular to improve the lives of people with different physical and developmental disabilities. In autistic patients, riding a horse can improve their sense of self-awareness, balance, and self-worth.

“Studies have clearly shown that individuals struggling with autism and other developmental disabilities can be given a new key to the kingdom by their engagement with the horse especially when they are responsible for some extent for caring for the horse,” said Creagan.

Bringing people together

Not only do pets improve people’s health, but they can also introduce you to new social situations. Taking your pet out for walks around the neighborhood or to a dog park can introduce you to people you wouldn’t have met. Creagan has experienced strangers sharing their stories because of the connection they have through their dogs.

"A few miles from Rochester, Minnesota there is a magnificent dog park. It's safe, it's manicured, it's about three acres, meticulously groomed, and there is a pond where dogs can swim. And we've been going there a couple of months and none of us have ever met before, were connected by our dogs and the stories people share with each other were unbelievable," said Creagan.