There's no doubt that Americans love their pets. A new survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) shows that more than 57 percent of U.S. households own one or more animals. But can having pets actually provide health benefits? Yes, say experts, as long as you're not allergic to animals or terrified of them. "Pet ownership is good for your health both physically and psychologically," says Connecticut psychologist Herbert Nieburg, author of "Pet Loss: A Thoughtful Guide for Adults and Children" (HarperCollins).
Sure, pets provide companionship and unconditional love. But research has shown that they can also help reduce stress and blood pressure in owners, increase longevity in those who've had heart attacks, and even relax and improve the appetites of Alzheimer's patients. "Any disease condition that has a stress-related component to it, we believe pets could ameliorate stress and moderate the situation," says biologist Erika Friedmann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. "It's providing a focus of attention that's outside of someone's self. They're actually letting you focus on them rather than focusing inward on yourself all the time."
Many four-legged pets, especially dogs, can also get owners off the couch. "They're there to greet you when you come home at the end of the day, and they're ready for some play and attention," says veterinarian Scott Line, associate editor of the "Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health." "They need to exercise, so it propels people out the door." These walks also force pet owners to socialize instead of sitting around feeling sorry for themselves, which can help improve their mood. "It gives people a routine, a thing to do. You have to get up and take care of the dog. You can't lie in bed all day," says Friedmann.
Those walks can also help owners stick to a regular exercise routine and slim down. Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri's College of Veterinary Medicine, has been studying 18-to-87-year-olds in the "Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound" program in Columbia, Mo., in which participants take shelter dogs for a walk each Saturday morning. "They lost weight, they felt great, and they were doing something wonderful," Johnson says.
Pets can help prevent loneliness, too. Indeed, the AVMA survey found that nearly half of respondents considered their pets to be companions; only about 2 percent considered them to be property. "The human-animal bond is becoming increasingly strong in our society," says veterinarian and veterinary surgeon Kimberly May of the AVMA. In fact, Alan Beck, director of the Center for Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, found in a study that 97 percent of people talk to their pets. "The other 3 percent lied," he quips.
Families with allergies can still get a pet if they can commit to allergy shots. But those shots typically need to be taken every week for about half a year and then every two to four weeks after that. They require a significant time commitment and should be discussed with an allergist, says Dr. Mitchell Lester, an executive committee member of the American Academy of Pediatrics's allergy and immunology section. Families may choose furless and featherless pets instead, like turtles, iguanas, fish and snakes. Though, of course, it's tough to "cuddle up with a snake in front of a TV," says Lester.
Another option for kids with allergies who want a pet? Bring home a stuffed animal instead. A study in the January issue of the AAP journal Pediatrics found that a "Huggy-Puppy" doll actually eased the stress and improved outcomes for 2-to-7-year-old children in Israel who were exposed to violence during the Israeli-Lebanon war in 2006. (And stuffed pets won't make a mess on your floor!)
If you opt for a live animal, make sure to do plenty of research before you bring one home, and choose one whose personality, size and requirements fit your needs, abilities and living situation. And don't think adding more pets will bring more health benefits. Beck says that for many people one or two is plenty—more animals do not mean more health (often, just more responsibilities). Finally, as many benefits as pets bring, it's important not to become too dependent on those animal companions, cautions psychologist Alan Entin, past president of the American Psychological Association's division of family psychology. Though they make great companions, in the end pets are still no substitute for human friends and family.