7 Ways Our Fur Babies Keep Us Healthy

I couldn’t figure out why my cat wanted to always be so close suddenly.  It was out of character for him to ALWAYS be so snuggly.  I just thought it was a sign of his aging. The veterinarian side of me thought maybe he had some illness.  So I ran a bunch of tests, but the results were all normal.  Little did I know, he was trying to tell me something about my health.

My Cat Was Behaving Oddly

He followed me around the house continually.  As soon as I sat down, he would jump up and lay across my chest.  He was becoming more aggressive about it too, as time ticked on.  He would snuggle up to my left side in bed at night.  At first, he would just lay across my chest. But then he started to paw and nudge at my left breast.  I thought he just wanted me to roll over so he could snuggle.  Boy, was I wrong!

It Started With An Itch That Wouldn’t Go Away

Then one day I felt an itch deep inside my left breast.  I was inside a department store dressing room trying on bathing suits at the time. I thought maybe I just irritated my skin with the bathing suit strap as it snapped across.  

I scratched at it, digging in to get to the center of the irritation.  Then, I felt a firm lump. I stopped itching. What was this?  It was very distinctive.  I felt around and became somewhat concerned.  But, after feeling around, I dismissed it in my mind, as I have had fibrous lumps before that would come and go. 

The Lump Was Breast Cancer

After several doctor visits, multiple tests and surgery, I discovered that the lump was breast cancer.  I had stage 3 intraductal carcinoma. 

I Swear That My Cat Knew This Already

My cat continued to be fascinated with my left chest area; laying across it, pawing at it and nudging it.  He continued this until I had completely healed from my mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  And then he stopped and returned to his normal aloof self.

In hindsight, I think he knew I had cancer and was trying to tell me.  I know that there are, in fact, cancer-sniffing dogs.  Why not a cancer-sniffing cat? 

Certainly cats and dogs have alerted people to danger countless times through out history.

But, whether pets can sniff out illness or alert us to dangers, they do benefit both our physical and mental health in so many other scientifically proven ways.  Let’s explore just 7 ways that dogs and cats can help improve our health

1. Increase Fitness

Taking our dogs for a walk not only benefits their health, it also benefits our own.  Dog owners are known to walk almost 22 minutes per day more than those who don’t own dogs. 

It isn’t just dogs that get us out there exercising.  In a survey by Elliptical Review, cat owners reported that they were more likely to exercise too.  Cat and dog owners reported almost 5 hours per week of exercise, while people who didn’t own pets reported just over 2 hours. 

2. Improve Mental Health

It is no secret that pets help us feel better and comfort us.  They can reduce anxiety and depression.  Numerous studies have shown the benefit of animals for those suffering from mental illness. 

Science has studied the benefits of pets in many different groups of people.  Pets have been shown to decrease aggression in elderly dementia patients.  They help calm people in prisons.  They help college and university students deal with anxiety and stress of exams.  And they can help those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Pets also help ease loneliness.  Not only do pets keep us company themselves, but pet therapy has been shown to help increase human interactions and social relationships as well.

Pets can have a profound effect on children.  Growing up with animals can make us kinder and reduce the risk of mental illness later in life.  Autistic children and those diagnosed with ADHD have better behaviour scores on test after pet therapy. 

3. Lower Risk of Heart Disease

The American Heart Association released a statement acknowledging the relationship between pet ownership and reduced risk of heart disease.  Pets can lower our resting heart rates, improve our blood pressure, lower cholesterol, reduced triglycerides and improved stress test scores.  People are also more likely to survive a heart attack if they owned a pet. 

So, pets have positive physical effects on our heart health

4. Increase Immunity

We already discussed that pet owners are more active.  But they are also more active outdoors, which has important positive effects on our immune systems.  We know that being outside in the sunshine produces Vitamin D.  Fresh air also stimulates hormones that strengthen our immune system.  And a walk in a wooded area means we breathe in phytochemicals that are shown, scientifically, to boost immunity.

When indoors, being around animals increases our exposure to more bacteria.  While this may sound bad, it is actually a good thing.  Babies and children growing up with these extra germs have stronger immune systems.  Their immune systems are also less likely to react inappropriately to non-harmful agents later in life.  So, they are less likely to develop allergy or asthma and are generally less sick than children who don’t live with animals. 

5. Decrease Pain

Several studies have demonstrated that people living with chronic pain report significant pain relief after visits from therapy dogs. It seems that we produce brain hormones that decrease pain and pain-related symptoms when we interact with friendly dogs, even for brief periods of time. 

Cats and dogs have been known to help people with arthritis and those recovering from surgeries.  Pets get us moving, bending and stretching.  These activities help decrease stiffness and soreness.  Gentle, non-strenuous movements, such as during the feeding and petting of our fur babies, can help people recover faster.

6. Improve Brain Health

Dr. Nicholas Epley, a behavioural science professor at the University of Chicago says that talking to pets is a sign of intelligence.  In his research, he has concluded that people are smarter if they talk to their non-human companions.  Similar results were found by researchers at Harvard University that suggest people who prefer the company of animals are more intelligent. 

Our pets increase a hormone in our body called oxytocin, or the “mothering hormone”.  This hormone can cause us to be more calm, rational, and trusting.  It also helps improve our memory. 

Elderly pet owners are more resilient to a decline in brain function and mental health.  Further, owning a pet seems to give people a sense or purpose and helps them live longer and happier lives. 

7. Increase Self Confidence and Compassion

Studies also show that children who grow up with animals tend to be more self-assured and compassionate people as they grow into adulthood.  Companionship and love for a family pet can make the child feel important and help them build social relationships.  Pets have also been known to calm children.

My Cats Helped Me Get Through My Cancer Treatments

I certainly appreciated having my cats around me during my cancer treatments. Fighting cancer can be a lonely time.  Being too sick or immune-suppressed to leave my house, I found that I would have hours upon hours to spend by myself while the rest of my family was at work or in school.  My cats kept me company and helped relieve the boredom. 

Caring for my pets during this time meant that I wouldn’t be sitting for extended periods of time.  I got up out of my chair to feed them their lunch.  I would pet and brush them.  And they would make me laugh and smile when I was feeling horrible. 

I don’t think I would have made it through all those cancer treatments without them. 

5 Cautions

If you don’t already own a pet, don’t just run out the door to go get one; not yet.  There are a few things you should consider first about owning a pet.  They can come with a unique set of issues.  Be sure to research your choice of pet well before getting one.

1. Allergies

Some people are allergic to animals.  The dander can contain allergens that can cause allergic reactions.  Most often this is just the sniffles, sneezing or sinus trouble, but it can lead to full blown anaphylaxis or asthma in some cases. 

A couple of ways to reduce pet dander allergens is to find a pet that doesn’t shed fur as much.  Keeping your pet brushed, groomed and bathed can also help cut down on allergy symptoms.  And vacuum and dust regularly to keep the fur from flying around the house. 

An allergy specialist or immunologist can help you find other ways to manage pet allergy symptoms. 

2. Toxoplasmosis, Rabies & Other Zoonoses

Some pets can be carriers of disease.  Illnesses that are passed from animals to people are called zoonoses (pronounced “zoo-ah-no-sees”). 

One zoonosis is toxoplasmosis which is a parasite carried by cats.  Cats with toxoplasmosis are not usually sick or may just have mild diarrhea.  But it can cause birth defects in people when the pregnant mother is exposed.  It is primarily a concern in stray cats and cats that go outdoors but can go undetected in cats that remain indoors too.  To prevent exposure, pregnant women should not clean litterboxes, as it is passed to people through cat feces. 

Rabies is another zoonosis.  It is relatively rare in countries where most dogs and cats are vaccinated and rabies control programs for wildlife exist.  But it still kills about 59,000 people every year around the world. 

Other zoonotic diseases can include bacteria, viruses, funguses and parasites.  It is important to ensure your fur baby is healthy and stays that way with regular veterinary care. 

3. Raw Food Diets

Pet owners want to feed their pets the healthiest diet possible.  I completely understand that.  It is fabulous.

However, there is a trend in pet food theory suggesting that animals should eat raw foods, including raw meat.  There are issues with feeding raw diets to our pets.  Young and elderly pets may have trouble digesting raw food, especially organ meats.  Cooking is a form of pre-digestion that can make the nutrients more easily absorbed. 

Raw meats are often contaminated with things like Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and Campylobacter.  These bacteria may or may not make your pet sick.  However, the bacteria can also be passed onto people through pet saliva, urine and feces.  It can be a serious problem in people that have weaker immune systems, like young children, elderly adults, cancer and AIDS patients. 

Pets should eat well-balanced cooked or commercial diets.  They can live full lives on these foods and do not need to eat raw foods to get adequate nutrition. 

4. Bites, Scratches & Other Injuries

Any pet can bite and scratch when scared, threatened or startled.  It is important to be aware of the warning signs of aggression or defence your pet.  Warning behaviors are different for different species. 

Cat scratches can become infected quite quickly.  Cat scratch fever can leave us feeling like we have the flu with fever, chills and body aches after being scratched.  It is always a good idea to get cat scratches checked out by a doctor if they are looking especially red, swollen or have a discharge. 

It is unfortunate, but trip & fall injuries are most common amongst elderly pet owners. Animals can easily get under foot or you may get tangled in a dog leash for example. 

5. Expenses

Pets can be costly.  Food, toys, leashes and veterinary care can all add up over the lifetime of the pet.  It is estimated that owning a dog can cost $1500 – $5000 per year, for example.  This can add up to over $50,000 for its lifetime.  Sick pets can cost $1000 to $5000 for veterinary treatment.  It is important to assess your finances to see if you can afford the cost of owning a pet.  Consider getting pet insurance if it is available to you. 

5 Bits of Pet Owning Advice

The best way to avoid problems is to learn how to care for your pet properly.  Here are 5 tips to be a great pet-parent. 

1. Pick the Right Pet

Unfortunately, many people get pets on impulse.  I get it, they are cute and tug at our heartstrings.  But pets can live many years and it is important to find the pet that fits with your lifestyle.  It can prevent frustration and unintentional pet neglect down the road. 

There are so many different types of pets.  There are over 330 recognized breeds of dogs and 71 cat breeds in the world.  Each breed has its own set of characteristics.  There are mixed breed dogs and cats too that make wonderful pets. 

There are exotic pets that include small mammals such as hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets.  There are multiple types of birds, reptiles and amphibians. 

It is important to do your research.  Learn about the pet you are interested in and, most importantly, how to take care of it.  This is something you need to know before getting a pet. 

2. Keep It Healthy

You want your pet to stay healthy for as long as possible.  This means good nutrition, adequate exercise, lighting, temperatures, housing conditions and regular veterinary medical care. 

3. Be A Forever Home

Depending on the breed, dogs live approximately 10 to 12 years.  Cats can live up to 20 years.  Some birds and reptiles can live 50 years or more.  Being a good pet parent means that you are committed to caring for that animal for its entire lifespan.  So, keep this in mind when researching the right pet for you. 

4. Practice Good Hygiene

Many of the cautions we discussed can be solved by just practicing good hygiene.  Cleaning up after your pet regularly so as not to let urine, feces and fur build up is very important.  Washing your hands with soap and water after playing or petting your pet before eating is also good practice.  And keeping your pet groomed not only helps keep it healthy, but helps to reduce our risk for developing pet allergies or asthma. 

Picking up after your dog on walks also helps protect your community and the environment. 

5. Leave Wildlife in the Wild

Wild animals are more likely to carry disease and can be quite dangerous. It may also be illegal in some places to keep wild animals as pets.  It may be tempting to rescue wild animals if we see them out there injured, but you are putting yourself at risk.  There are people trained to look after injured wildlife.  Call them and let them do their job.  Leave the wild animals in the wild.  They do not make good pets. 

Patricia Prince, founder of Pink Ribbon Runner, has degrees in science and veterinary medicine. She has worked in the medical research field for over 10 years. Passionate about running and healthy living, she strives to help cancer survivors and others heal through healthy habits. She believes the path to good health is through eating well and being active. When she is not blogging at Pink Ribbon Runner or running, she cuddles with her 4 cats and reads.

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