Are Pets Good for Your Health?

If you own a dog or a cat (and, according to the American Pet Products Association, 37-47 percent of U.S. households have a dog and 30-37 percent, a cat), you know the love goes both ways. But, do you know what your pet does for your health?

Quite a lot, actually, says Dr. Jon Dvorak, director of medical operations at ProMedica Physicians Group and in private practice at Perrysburg Pediatricians.

“There have been studies done that indicate people with dogs and cats are less prone to depression and have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels,” Dr. Dvorak says. “Playing with pets can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which help to keep people from being depressed.”

Dogs, particularly, are helpful in keeping their owners’ hearts healthy, Dr. Dvorak says. The reason is simple: dog owners walk more and have lower blood pressure than people who don’t have dogs.

“Studies have found that simply touching animals can lower the heart rate while lowering stress and anxiety,” Dr. Dvorak says. “It’s also been shown that people with pets are less lonely and that pets can add structure and routine to the day, helping their owners feel useful.”

One study Dr. Dvorak cites states that heart attack patients with dogs survive longer. The National Institutes of Health study looked at 421 heart attack survivors. A year later, it was found that dog owners were considerably more likely to be alive than those who did not own dogs.

Dr. Dvorak with his daughter, Maria, and his dogs.

Dr. Dvorak, a dog owner, speaks from experience. One year after his heart attack, he’s doing well. (He and his daughter Maria Dvorak Schmalzried, a ProMedica employee, shared their story through a blog and video on HealthConnect last year.)

“We consider our dogs part of the family,” Dr. Dvorak says. “As much as the strong ties among my family helped me post-heart attack, so did the love of these two dogs, Bailey and Boo, which have been with us for eight and four years, respectively. They didn’t know I had a heart attack so when I came home, they behaved just as they always have whereas the others kind of danced around on tiptoes.”

Dr. Dvorak says he doesn’t exactly prescribe the owning of pets to patients when they come to see him. He does, however, converse with patients about the benefits of pet ownership, if they have pets.

“Studies show that children with social anxiety and those with autism can benefit tremendously through interacting with pets, provided, of course, the pets are gentle and loving,” he says.

Dr. Dvorak plans to continue enjoying his family and his dogs for many, many years to come. About Boo and Bailey, he adds with a laugh: “I’m their playtoy.”

Related: Read about how a dog is helping blogger Mary Helen Darah become a better woman.