Dogs help owners alleviate stress

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Dog owners make fewer visits to the doctor

Puppy's love works better than Prozac at reducing stress, B.C. professor claims

UBC professor and author Stanley Coren says dogs work better than Prozac, a prescription antidepressant -- and that's no exaggeration.

According to a study published recently in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, the positive effects of having a familiar, friendly dog close by include lowered blood pressure, slowed heart beat and more relaxed muscles -- all signs of reduced stress.

Unlike prescription medications, the positive effects of having a beloved canine close by are also achieved much faster than pills.

It took only from five to 24 minutes for people to exhibit signs of reduced stress when they were with their dog, compared with the days or weeks it can take before people benefit from the effects of prescription medications intended to deal with stress and depression, according to Coren's book.

"The data is absolutely unambiguous," Coren said in an interview. "This actually works better than having a loved one next to you."

A growing body of research shows that dog owners -- and seniors, in particular -- make fewer visits to their doctor and are generally more physically active.

Seniors who live with a dog are also four times less likely to suffer from depression than those who do not have a dog.

"It's quite an amazing statistic," Coren says.

At the other end of the age spectrum, there are studies that show children who live with dogs are less likely to develop animal-related allergies later in life, and are less likely to develop eczema as well as allergies to dust and pollen.

In terms of general heart health, an Australian study of more than 1,500 people found pet owners had lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than people who didn't have pets -- even when people in both groups had the same bad health habits, such as smoking and eating a high-fat diet.

Dog ownership is by no means a cure-all to health problems or bad habits. But another study, by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, showed that in men who had had a heart attack for the first time, those who had the companionship of a dog were more likely to be alive four years later than those who did not have dogs.

"The argument was that this was simply the effect of stress reduction," Coren says.

Several studies have shown that children who have some responsibility in caring for a pet are more nurturing, empathetic and socially competent. And, as an unexpected side-effect, they are also generally more popular with their peers.

But be warned. The psychological effects of giving up the family dog are worse than you might think, so make sure you have adequate time, energy and patience before bringing home a new dog.

Children who have grown up in families that gave up their pets tend to approach relationships as if they were less permanent and less valuable.

Similarly, children who watched their parents regularly punish or hit the family dog are more likely to exhibit the same behaviour toward the family pet as they get older.

So, if you're not quite ready to commit to a dog of your own, but you'd like some of the health benefits associated with having one, try taking care of someone else's dog for a few days.

Or, better yet, sign up at the local animal shelter for a volunteer dog-walking program. It doesn't have the same benefits of living with a dog or relaxing with a dog, but you'll get a good walk -- and perhaps some of the myriad health benefits that come with volunteering.

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