Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Effects Of Boredom, Loneliness And Separation Anxiety On Your Family Pet

Most pet owners consider their four-legged friends as members of the family. Owners tell funny stories to friends about their pets amusing antics. Some pet owners even celebrate the birthdays of their feline and canine companions. Like other family members, owners cuddle with pets, talk to them, nurse them when they are sick, and punish them when they do things that are against the rules. Yet, while most pets are well-behaved, many owners have come home to find things ripped to shreds by their dog or that their cat soiled a favorite comforter. As much as owners may react harshly by yelling at or otherwise punishing their furry friends, consider the likelihood that these pets are reacting out of boredom, loneliness, and separation anxiety.

The reality is that many pets are subject to boredom, loneliness and separation anxiety just as children are. Although it is difficult to rationalize the destruction of property, pet owners should be careful not to anthropomorphize (to ascribe human characteristics to things not human) pet behavior. It is essential to realize that animals need mental and physical stimulation to prevent boredom and loneliness. Pets enjoy the company of their fellow pack animals to alleviate loneliness, for example, and an owners patient and compassionate help in overcoming separation anxiety is critical.

Researchers and veterinarians are not really sure what causes separation anxiety in some pets and not in others. Lately, the theory is that some pets have experienced a traumatic separation experience and/or may be genetically predisposed to anxious behavior. Animals that are separated from their mothers too early, or have been in and out of animal shelters, appear to be prone to anxious behavior. It is easy to understand why these experiences may dispose pets to continuing anxiety about becoming separated from those to whom they have formed attachments. Pets are creatures of habit, just as humans are.

Many dogs know that it's time for a walk when they see owners grab the leash. Cats salivate when tea is made. They react to the sound of the spoon hitting the side of the cup, expecting a dab of milk as a treat. And, most importantly to this discussion, pets know that they will soon be left alone when you begin to wrap up your morning routine and prepare to leave for the day.

You may have noticed that your happy go lucky dog or cool as a cucumber cat become agitated or tense as you brush your teeth or put your shoes on. This agitation becomes near panic as you reach for your keys and grab your coat. And the panic becomes aggravated when you leave the house. Perhaps the tension doesn't begin until you open the closet door and reach for your coat. "How cute," you think, "Rex wants to go outside." Yet, candidly, dogs and cats know the difference between going for a walk and their owners abandoning them for the day. Your pet is asking to go with you; and, when you appear to be ignoring his needs, he becomes anxious at the thought that you are leaving and may never return.

Have you ever returned home to find that the kitchen cabinets have been opened and all of your dried, boxed food has been ripped open and strewn haphazardly on the floor? Even worse than the actual mess, you recall that you put your dog in the crate before you left for work. The door to the crate is still closed; but your pet is sitting in the middle of the living room floor, surrounded by what's left of your shredded wedding photo album, innocently wagging his tail. The neighbors have started complaining that your pet has been barking and howling constantly and your door frames have been chewed to bits.

A pet that suffers from loneliness, separation anxiety or boredom may display only one undesirable behavior. It is just as likely, however, that your pet is reacting only when you are not home. And unfortunately, this behavior is wreaking havoc on your relationship with your beloved pet. Observe your pet for signs of impending trouble as you go about your morning routine. A dog that is exhibiting signs of separation anxiety will often whimper or whine when they sense you may be preparing to leave.

Pacing the floors, shaking or shivering, and even aggressively trying to prevent your departure are not uncommon behaviors when your pet knows your departure is imminent. In fact, some pets have even taken to gnawing at his paws in an effort to alleviate anxiety - much like humans chew their own fingernails. An pet in the throes of extreme anxiety will occasionally injure himself or herself as a result of their behavior. These are extreme cases and need to be taken very seriously and solved immediately. A chewing behavior often extends to objects, doorways, and your pet may even dig and scratch at windows in an effort to find you.

Some animals may become depressed when they feel their humans have abandoned them. Depression in animals often takes the form of anorexia (refusal to eat) or vomiting. If an owner is leaving for the day, and a pet refuses to eat for eight or nine hours, this is not a significant issue. However, if an owner leaves for an extended period of time, say for a vacation or a job that involves traveling for more than a day at a time, a pet may become malnourished and may require medical treatment. Extreme cases may end with the death of your beloved pet. Incessant barking and howling is also common behavior for a dog that feels abandoned.

Cats who suffer from separation anxiety display many of the same behaviors as dogs. Many pet owners are fooled into thinking that cats have no apparent reaction to their comings and goings. However, just because cats are not known to cause major property damage, there is no reason to ignore their suffering, or to believe they are not bothered by your absence. A cat that is suffering from separation anxiety will pace, and often becomes nervous and clingy when an owner is preparing to leave for the day.

A cat suffering from separation anxiety can also display noisy protests to his owners departure. Cats may also urinate or defecate in inappropriate places and scratch doorways and furnishings. While it was thought that cats did not suffer from separation anxiety, the most recent research indicates that cats, like dogs, form strong bonds with humans, and may become anxious and overwhelmed when their masters leave. In fact, like dogs, cats may groom themselves to the point of baldness or sores.

While there is a tendency of a pet within a specific breed to suffer from boredom, loneliness or separation anxiety - often pure bred dogs and cats, mixed breeds suffer from the same emotional afflictions. Dogs and cats are social creatures. When deprived of the security of their natural mother and siblings, a new pet becomes attached to his new human family members. This is normal social animal behavior. Problems arise, however, when the attachment to the human family becomes excessively dependent. The pressing questions are how do we identify this behavior, and, subsequently, correct the resulting problems. Pets that form intense attachments to their masters are the likeliest candidates to suffer from boredom, loneliness or separation anxiety. Pets need to learn that we will be coming back soon and are not abandoning them forever, especially since animals have no real concept of time.

Soon after an owner departs, a pet begins to miss this attention, likely believing that the owner will be gone for a very long time. Those of us with children have learned that playing peek-a-boo teaches children that parents disappear, but return immediately. Animal experts do not suggest that you play peek-a-boo with your pets. They do, however, know that pets need to learn their owners will return. A dog that practically looses his mind with joy upon the return of his owner is likely suffering from separation anxiety. This is not to say that an emotionally healthy pet should ignore you when you walk in the door after a long day; but, he should definitely not act as if they have been deprived of all human contact for the last decade.

The lessons that reassure pets that their masters will return are best begun while they are young. Leaving animals with their biological mother until they are at least eight weeks old can go a long way toward eliminating feelings of separation. If you have a canine or feline companion that is no longer young, and he is not adjusting appropriately to your absences, you will need to put forth the effort to correct the situation yourself. However daunting the task seems, don't lose hope! Regressive behavior that is a result of boredom, loneliness or separation anxiety can usually be remedied at any age. Old dogs can learn new tricks! Old cats, however, can be a different case altogether. Cats that have learned undesirable behavior are difficult to retrain. As a matter of fact, cat owners know full well that the word "train" often does not apply to cats. Cats are often immune to behavior modification. Yet, take heart, change is still possible.

Curiously enough, some pet owners and experts alike swear by the use of punishment to "break" an animal of an undesirable behavior. Although one must wonder why an owner would want a broken companion, the fact is that punishment is often counterproductive. A fostering of trust with any animal is imperative to building a sound relationship. For the purposes of this discussion, punishment is not a recommended course of action to rid your pet of undesirable behavior; and it is certainly not the way to teach your animal to trust that you have not abandoned him. It is important to remember that your pet is not attempting to punish you for abandoning them by gnawing on everything in sight or urinating on the floor. They are merely afraid that you will not return home. The resulting destructive behavior is the product of their fear of isolation.

Providing a pet with the services of a daycare center is an option, but not always feasible, and prohibitively expensive at that. In lieu of a pet sitter, owners should begin their campaign to reform their pet's behavior by never making a big deal out of leaving their pet alone. Although many owners themselves experience separation anxiety, especially when a pet is new to a home, it is important that owners do not reveal guilt for leaving a new pet. The coming and going of pet owners is simply a fact of life, and a pet cannot always come along. The earlier pets come to accept this fact, the better they will fit into the family. Desensitizing your pet is the first step in helping him or her accept that an owner is not available.

Leave your pet for short periods of time and increase to longer periods. Actually leave the house when you do this exercise, as some pets are not easily fooled. When crate training a dog, use the same process. Leave the dog in the crate for short periods of time, gradually building up to longer stretches. Contrary to what some pet owners believe, crates are not cruel devices for dogs. Dogs are den animals. They often prefer the security of feeling like they are in a warm, safe den-like enclosure. Many dogs that have been crate trained are often found relaxing in their wired den with the door open, happily chewing on a bone or taking a nap. Remember, however, that you should never use the crate as a form of punishment. The crate is a safe haven for your dog, not a time-out room and should always retain positive associations. Additionally, upon returning to home or upon removing a pet from the crate, owners should actually ignore their pet for a short while. Remember, your comings and goings are not a big deal. The idea is that there is no cause for alarm or excitement when you depart or arrive.

In extreme cases of separation anxiety, the process of desensitizing a pet will need to be undertaken in very small steps. Using a variation of the process described above, owners of an anxious pet must approach the desensitizing procedure carefully. Approach your morning routine as you normally would, but in small steps that are easy understand.

1 Begin by putting your coat or jacket on, then sit down on the couch. After a minute or two, remove your coat and put it away. Repeat this action until your pet does not become anxious.

2 Next, put your coat on and grab your keys (purse, bag, lunchbox, or whatever else you may take with you when you leave for the day), then sit on the couch again. After a moment, put your keys and coat away. Repeat this action until your pet does not become anxious during this process.

3 When your pet becomes comfortable with what you are doing so far, you can take the process a step further. Put your coat on, grab your keys and then open the door. Close the door, replace your keys and put your coat away. Repeat until your pet becomes comfortable.

4 You will now repeat everything you have previously done, but now you will actually step out of the house (but don't close the door). You will then re-enter the house and reverse your actions. Do this until your pet is comfortable.

5 Then further the process by actually closing the door for a few seconds or so. Re-enter the house, reverse your actions and repeat until your pet accepts these actions also.

6 The final steps in the process involve closing the door and leaving the house for longer periods of time. Once you are able to leave the house for an hour and a half or so, you should be able to leave your pet alone for a work day. (Make sure that you put your favorite shoes in a secure spot - now is not the time to tempt him.)

Take it slowly. Be consistent. The steps detailed above are a guideline. The actual formula that you use should include pieces of your personal getting-ready-to-leave routine. The idea is to teach your pet that there is no cause to worry. Your pet will soon learn that his human pack members have not disappeared off the face of the earth.

In very extreme cases, there are medications that may help; but, they should be only used as a last resort, and only in combination with desensitization training. To use them alone would doom your pet to a lifetime of medication while ignoring the actual root of the separation anxiety problem. Your vet can prescribe medications such as clomipramine (Clomicalm), fluoxetine (Prozac), or buspirone (Buspar) for a cat or dog who is clearly suffering from the effects of separation anxiety. These medications have been used successfully for separation anxiety in pets and are readily available for use.

Research has shown that pets will often display anxious behavior soon after the departure of owners. Experts believe that occupying a pet during the crucial twenty to thirty minute period after initially being left alone will alleviate any undesirable behavior resulting from boredom, loneliness or separation anxiety. Some dog owners have had success with a "kong". A kong is a hollow rubber toy into which the owner slathers peanut butter, cheese or soft dog food. The theory is that the dog will be so occupied with the yummy kong or bone treat that he or she will not even notice that his master has disappeared. And by the time he or she does notice, the period during which separation anxiety often occurs will have passed. Kongs have been known to work great for some pet owners. Others have discovered that the kong is still full of peanut butter when they come home and pets have instead opted to devour other significant household items. Generally, this is the sign of a dog that is not anxious, but is instead bored and/or lonely.

Providing your cat and dog with appropriate playthings can ensure comfort and entertainment when you are not at home. Make sure that your pet has plenty of bones, a kong, or balls, and offer your cat a catnip mouse and balls with bells inside. Additionally, know that a sleeping pet is a well-behaved pet. It's difficult to cause trouble when tired. Therefore, make sure that your pet gets sufficient exercise. Take walks regularly and allow your dog to interact with other canines. The purchase of a laser light can provide hours of exercise and fun for your cat. Cats love to chase a dot on the wall, and this amusing exercise will keep him fit and out of trouble.

Changing the environment of your pet may also make him feel more secure. Your dog knows that you turn off the television or radio when you leave; so change it up a bit. Dog owners have had some success with leaving the television or radio on while they are gone. For pets, environmental noise is something that occurs only when you are home, and. therefore, alleviates the anxiety that occurs when he thinks you are not in the vicinity. Providing visual or audio stimulation is very successful. Providing a window perch where a cat can observe birds that fly by the house is an example, or you can take advantage of videotapes or DVD's that show birds.

Unlike dogs, when cats misbehave, you cannot march him off to obedience class. Correcting unacceptable feline behavior can be significantly different than correcting canine behavior patterns. A bored or lonely cat may display many of the same behaviors as a cat suffering from separation anxiety. Yelling at him usually generates little response. Inappropriate urination is a very common reaction for cats and can be eliminated using a combination of patience and ingenuity.

For a cat that insists that he must urinate on your clothing or bedroom floor, you must first make sure that there is a litter box nearby. Cats tend to make the decision as to where they want their box located. If your cat is using your laundry hamper as a litter box, try placing his box near the hamper. Gradually move the box to the location comfortable to you. Make sure that the box is filled with the litter that your cat prefers. Cats can be quite finicky about what they put their feet into. Generally, cats prefer clumping litter to clay. Additionally, make sure that the litter is kept clean. By clean, the litter must be clean according to your cat's standards, not yours. Cats are fastidious animals and the difference between a box that has recently been urinated in and a box that is freshly scooped may well be the difference for success.

There certainly are options for pet owners to rid both their canine and feline companions of undesirable behavior. Changing behaviors in both cats and dogs takes patience, planning and lots of rewards. The trick is to make the offensive behavior unpleasant for your dog or cat. Doing so will make both the pets, and their owners, happier and far more comfortable.

In the final analysis, while most pets do not suffer from separation anxiety, all pets suffer from boredom and loneliness. It is a fact. The question becomes how to reverse this perpetual condition. It is an inescapable reality that pets, especially indoor pets, are alone with little stimulation for 10 to 12 hours at a time. There are alternative and creative ways to combat this syndrome. A pet that is hampered with boredom may become restless and destructive. A pet that is lonely has a greater chance of suffering from depression.

With the prevalence of technology today, it is economically possible to engage and befriend your pet during the day, while you are away. Take the time and effort to research those ways that will brighten and liven the days of your pet. Doing so will not only demonstrate that you care, but bolster the health and happiness of your pet. This in turn will only benefit you as a pet owner. You will get more satisfaction of having a healthier and happier pet. You will have peace of mind and reduce sense of guilt of not completely abandoning your pet.

In closing, may all pet owners recognize that we need to be best friends to our best friends. http://www.eraffle.com is a new marketing and advertising platform that allows businesses to "eRaffle" products and services to local and global eRaffle members. eRaffle members are able to actively view businesses and get FREE tickets to win exciting items. Business owners are assured that their "eRaffle campaign" is being exposed in quantified ways.This is powerful and effective marketing. And since anyone can win a raffle, unlike auctions, where the highest bidder is the winner, business owners and eRaffle members share in the excitement.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Famed Fat Cat 'Prince Chunk' Dies at 10

An enormously fat cat named Prince Chunk who became famous when he was found wandering in New Jersey after his owner lost her home to foreclosure has died. Prince Chunk's adoptive owner, Vince Damiani of Blackwood, said the white tabby died in his sleep Sunday. He was about 10 years old. Damiani said a veterinarian had diagnosed the cat with heart disease.

Prince Chunk skyrocketed to fame in August 2008 after the Camden County Animal Shelter, which took him in, reported that he weighed 44 pounds, just shy of a world record. Damiani believes that estimate may have been somewhat exaggerated. He said Prince Chunk weighed 22 pounds when he brought the cat home from the shelter. He soon became a media sensation, appearing on "Good Morning America," "Live with Regis and Kelly," the covers of the New York tabloids and in People magazine. The Damiani family was chosen from among 500 applicants to adopt him.

The pet's plight inspired the Damianis to establish the Prince Chunk Foundation, a nonprofit that helps financially distressed pet owners keep their animals. The foundation operates in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and California. Its mission is to prevent animal homelessness by providing temporary assistance to dog and cat owners, including free emergency vet care and pet food, Damiani said.

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving safety tips for pets -- What not to feed your dog or cat this holiday

Thanksgiving safety tips for pets -- What not to feed your dog or cat this holidayThis Thanksgiving, fight the urge to feed Fido your leftovers. Your pup may whimper for table scraps but they could cause him serious harm. "Thanksgiving can be a hazardous holiday for our pets," said Dr. Ron DeHaven, chief executive officer of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "Our pets simply can't handle fatty foods as well as we can.”

You can feed your dog a bite or two of turkey but make sure it’s well-cooked to avoid choking and salmonella risks, the ASPCA advises. But be careful. Too much fatty turkey skin and gravy can cause pancreatitis, a serious inflammation that can turn a happy Thanksgiving dinner into an emergency run to the vet’s clinic.

Sorry, no stuffing. Herbs, such as sage, contains essential oils that can cause stomach upset and more serious health problems in both dogs and cats. Onions and raisins are also a no-no. Keep dogs and cats away from chocolate, nuts, alcohol and raw bread dough. Make sure you tie your garbage bags tight to keep hungry paws away. If your leftovers go south, your dog will suffer the consequences of spoiled food: gastrointestinal upset, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms of food poisoning.

No bones, please. Cooked turkey bones are fragile and hollow and can cause serious internal injury to your dog. It's best to keep your dog on his regular schedule, advises the North Shore Animal League. Walk him and feed him the way you normally would to avoid problems.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Cat Owners Follow Similar Careers

Cat Owners Follow Similar CareersWe’ve all heard people claim to be either a dog person or a cat person, and this pet preference is supposed to provide insight into their personality. But does the type of animal you own say anything about your career path? According to nationwide survey released last week by Careerbuilder.com, it does.

The online survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, looked at dog, cat and other pet ownership in relation to a person’s chosen profession, compensation and job satisfaction. More than 2,300 U.S. workers with cats, dogs and other pets were polled for the survey.

It found that workers with dogs were more likely to hold senior management positions, such as a CEO or senior vice president. Workers with snakes or other reptiles were more likely to earn six figures, and bird owners were more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, according to the survey.

In terms of career paths, the survey found that owners of certain pets were more likely to report being drawn to certain professions. Specifically:

• Dog owners were more likely to be professors, nurses, information technology professionals, military professionals and entertainers;

• Cat owners were more likely to be physicians, real estate agents, lab technicians, machine operators and personal caretakers;

• Fish owners were more likely to be human resources professionals, financial professionals, hotel and leisure professionals, farming/fishing/forestry professionals and transportation professionals;

• Bird owners were more likely to be advertising professionals, sales reps, construction workers and administrative professionals; and

• Reptile owners were more likely to be engineers, social workers, marketing and public relations professionals, editors or writers and police officers.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Holiday Travel with Pets

Holiday Travel with PetsWith the holiday season on our doorstep, many people are already in the process of making travel plans to visit family and friends. Some folks are eager to get away, in search of a warmer climate, or perhaps even to a fancy winter wonderland, for that much needed vacation. But what are those pet pawrents doing who cannot bear the thought of traveling without their beloved fur companions, leaving them at a boarding facility or at home with a pet-sitter.

So I found it fascinating to read a survey recently, done by PetRelocation.com, (the leading pet travel and transportation service provider) of more than 7,000 pet owners worldwide. In their first annual survey, Pet Relocation found that sixty-three percent of pet owners say that during the holidays they travel at least 50 miles with their pets. Additionally, 85 percent of the respondents said that the distance they are willing to travel over the holidays is greatly influenced by their pets, but a greater number of pet owners (57 percent) said that their travel plans are not influenced at all.

It was no surprise to me that dogs were significantly in the majority of the pets folks plan to take with them on holiday. And while both species are considered as family members, since most cats are prone to greater travel-related stress than their canine cousins, this may account for this finding. 71 percent of folks traveling with their pets during the holidays choose to remain in their home state during the holidays, while 28 percent plan to be traveling out of state.

During the holiday season, 45 percent of pet owners surveyed spend between $50-$100 on pet-related products and services with an 85 percent majority taking holiday trips with their pets for a week or less. The remainder of pet owners traveling with pets responded their trips can stretch out for two weeks. What arrangements are you making to travel with your pets over the holiday season? Leave a comment and share them with us.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pete's Pets dinos stay put

The dinosaurs are staying. They are not up for adoption, for auction or for sale. Since closing Pete's Pets on Cerrillos Road in 2008, longtime owner Pete Sanders says he has received more than 100 phone calls from people interested in buying the two plastic sculptures of Tyrannosaurus rex on top of the building, which was recently purchased by the city for a homeless shelter.

Getting rid of the 70-pound displays was not negotiable, Sanders said, because they are simply part of the building. "They've been modified. The tails have been cut off and they've got holes in them to set them in place," Sanders said. "And they seem pretty comfortable up there."Plus, the approximately 8-foot-tall figures were always treated with special care, he said. Lois Owens, a Santa Fe resident, is one of those coveting a T. rex.

"I have always loved dinosaurs. It's like I'm 7 instead of 57," Owens said via e-mail. "The possibility of a large dinosaur for the yard would be the ultimate!"

The Santa Fe Children's Museum also inquired about them, said Terri Rodriguez, city of Santa Fe Youth and Family Services Division director. Since the city plans on keeping them, the museum got a pond and pump that was in the building instead, she said.

The Rev. Ken Semon, rector of the Church of the Holy Faith and chairman of the Interfaith Community Shelter Group that operates the homeless shelter, said the dinosaurs serve as a landmark for those who ride the public bus there.

"We tell people we are at the sign of the dinosaurs," he said. Vahid Mojarrab, lead architect for the building's renovation in April, said that no exterior alterations will be made and that he plans to leave the dinos exactly where they are. Knowing that makes Sanders happy, especially because both tyrannosaurids have a long history. One came from Los Angeles more than 15 years ago and sat outside Pete's Pets in Santa Fe.

A second lived on the roof of Sanders' Los Alamos store. He and other businesses were constantly in trouble with the city, which prohibited rooftop advertising. In 1999, someone decapitated T. rex and made off with his head. Even though someone in the community offered a $1,000 reward for its return, it never turned up.

Sanders ended up buying a replacement in 2000; when he closed the Los Alamos store in 2004, he moved the figure to Santa Fe. "We dragged them in and out of the store. We called it dino dancing," Sanders said.

Eventually they were moved to the roof and drew lots of attention. "People stopped by to take pictures of them," Sanders said. "We decorated them for Christmas; they had Easter baskets for Easter. We always treated them as if they had a personality."

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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pets can power greater fitness

A national fitness program to be announced today by Mars Petcare suggests looking no further than the family pooch. The Power of Pets, which aims to get families and pets walking and playing together, makes its debut this month at YMCAs in five cities: Brooklyn, N.Y.; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Nashville; and Portland, Ore.

"Healthy lifestyles are about nurturing the spirit, mind and body -- and pets certainly play a role in that," says Ted Cornelius, executive director of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee. "We encourage families to play together every day, and incorporating the family pet is a great way to make everyone more active." Programs will include owner-dog yoga, obstacle course events and Frisbee contests.

Mars Petcare, through its Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition, is a major sponsor of research on the benefits of human-animal interaction. Recent studies show children who have pets are more active, and seniors who walk dogs are healthier than seniors who rely on human partners for exercise.

"With obesity levels rising and health levels falling, we want to, ... help address those very serious issues," says Waltham's Karyl Hurley. "Walking or playing with a pet doesn't feel like 'exercise.' ... You might find excuses not to make it to the gym, but you will make sure your dog goes for a walk."Having a pet does help people be more active, suggests the company's survey of 1,000 owners: # 39 percent of pet owners say ensuring their pet is active has made them more active. # 64 percent of dog owners prefer to exercise with their pet than alone.

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Monday, November 1, 2010

Can pets help keep you healthy?

People have lots of reasons for owning pets. A small but growing body of research suggests that owning or interacting with animals may have the added benefit of improving your health. People and animals have a long history of living together and bonding. Perhaps the oldest evidence of this special relationship was discovered in Israel where a 12,000-year-old human skeleton was buried with its hand resting on the skeleton of a 6-month-old wolf pup.

Today animal companions are more popular than ever. The pet population nationwide has been growing dramatically for nearly a half century, from about 40 million pet cats and dogs in 1967 to more than 160 million in 2006. About two-thirds of U.S. households now own at least one pet.

Researchers have only recently begun to explore this wonderful relationship and what its health benefits might be. The general belief is that there are health benefits to owning pets, both in terms of psychological growth and development, as well as physical health benefits.

Some of the largest and most well-designed studies in this field suggest that four-legged friends can help to improve our cardiovascular health. One study looked at 421 adults who’d suffered heart attacks. A year later, the scientists found, dog owners were significantly more likely to still be alive than were those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack.

Another study looked at 240 married couples. Those who owned a pet were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure, whether at rest or when undergoing stressful tests, than those without pets. Pet owners also seemed to have milder responses and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than with a spouse or friend.

Several studies have shown that dog owners may get more exercise and other health benefits than the rest of us. One study looked at more than 2,000 adults and found that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog.

Another study followed more than 2,500 older adults, ages 71-82, for 3 years. Those who regularly walked their dogs walked faster and for longer time periods each week than others who didn’t walk regularly. Older dog walkers also had greater mobility inside their homes than others in the study.

Man’s best friend may help you make more human friends, too. Several studies have shown that walking with a dog leads to more conversations and helps you stay socially connected. Studies have shown that people who have more social relationships tend to live longer and are less likely to show mental and physical declines as they grow older. It’s hard to walk a dog and not have someone talk to you or interact with you, compared to walking alone.

Other research suggests that pet ownership may hold special benefits during childhood. When children are asked who they talk to when they get upset, a lot of times their first answer is their pet. This points to the importance of pets as a source of comfort and developing empathy. Therapists and researchers have reported that children with autism are sometimes better able to interact with pets, and this may help in their interactions with people.

Several research teams are examining the potential benefits of bringing specially trained animals into clinical settings. These animal-assisted therapies are increasingly offered in hospitals and nursing homes nationwide. Although there is little solid scientific evidence confirming the value of this type of therapy, clinicians who watch patients interacting with animals say they can clearly see benefits, including improved mood and reduced anxiety.

A difference is noted in many patients when the dog is at their bedside. The dogs add a bit of normalcy to a difficult situation. The dog will sit calmly, and the patients don’t have to talk to anyone. They can just pet. This may help with some of the suffering.

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