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Noon Cat Nick
January 15th 08, 02:40 AM
http://www.newsweek.com/id/91445?GT1=10755

By Karen Springen | Newsweek Web Exclusive
Jan 11, 2008 | Updated: 12:15 p.m. ET Jan 11, 2008

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 plentyŚmore 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.

ę 2008 Newsweek, Inc.