Pets Can Be Healthy Friends for People with RA

They’re cute. They’re cuddly.

They’re … good for our health?

Studies show that pets can offer more than simple companionship.

There is now evidence that owning and caring for a pet can increase longevity, reduce stress, and boost morale among people with chronic illnesses and chronic pain conditions like rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

People who own pets are also usually more active, which is an indicator of better health. This is especially true for people with arthritis, for whom physical activity is a key component in the management of their pain.

As 95 percent of Americans consider their pets to be a legitimate part of the family, pets may also offer a vital source of emotional support that is a crucial part of living with an incurable illness or disability like RA.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), pets can decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation that many people with chronic illnesses experience.

Read more: Get the facts on pet therapy »

Mental and emotional benefits

In addition to pets helping people feel less alone, they can also provide more opportunities to get outdoors and socialize with neighbors or fellow pet owners.

This can happen while walking a dog or meeting people at a dog park or pet store.

The opportunity to have interactions and form human connections is something that people who are dealing with illness may occasionally miss out on, compared with their healthier peers.

Studies have shown that working with therapy dogs has helped to boost people’s mood, can increase positive behaviors among people with autism, and reduce anxiety.

All that can lower blood pressure and reduce negative mental and emotional effects caused by stress.

Other studies have shown that pet owners are more outgoing, have greater self-esteem, and are more conscientious.

According to an article in Psychology Today written by Allen McConnell, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio, “pets provide meaningful social support for owners, improving their lives.”

Read more: Stem cell therapy a possible treatment for rheumatoid »

Physical health benefits

Taking dogs for a walk is a great way to stay active, but there are other interesting links between physical health and pet ownership.

Pets can lower our blood pressure, decrease triglyceride and cholesterol levels, decrease feelings of pain, and more.

There is even some evidence that cat purrs may actually have some healing properties.

Pets — especially dogs — are also known to improve the cardiovascular health of their owners, and also can be great companions for people with PTSD or depression.

As PTSD, depression, and cardiovascular disease are all linked to patients with RA, this may be of particular interest for those with the illness.

Tricia Sample, who resides in Pennsylvania, told Healthline she’s had RA for 10 years and firmly believes that her pets (a Yorkshire terrier named Isabella, and a cat named Daisy) both help to alleviate — or at least distract her from — her RA and fibromyalgia pain.

She joked, “I always say I need a pocket hamster” to carry around to help distract her from the pain.

She also wonders if the love she has for her animals helps to boost hormones in her brain that help to reduce pain.

Read more: Rheumatoid arthritis linked to serious mood disorders »

What professionals say

According to a survey conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation and posted on the website dogtime.com, “69 percent of doctors surveyed said they have successfully worked with animals in a hospital, medical center, or medical practice to assist patient therapy or treatment. Ninety-seven percent of doctors surveyed said they believe there are health benefits to living with pets. Most doctors in the survey said they have seen their patient’s health improve as a result of being a pet parent.”

“When you see how long we’ve had pets in our lives, and how important they are to us today, I think it’s amazing that the study of human-animal interactions is still so new,” stated Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) press release. “Researchers have only recently begun to explore this wonderful relationship and what its health benefits might be.”

Regardless of what science says, it seems that many people would agree that pets are beneficial for many reasons.

“As an avid volunteer and the owner of a pet-related optical company, I can cite both personal and professional experience when I say that I believe that pets are good for our health. I have some members of my own family who have battled illnesses and health issues, and the dogs always bring a smile to their faces,” Sam Shapiro, chief executive officer of Paws N Claws Eyewear, told Healthline.com

Shapiro continued, “Much like charity and volunteering, I think that caring for a pet can boost the morale and self-esteem of those dealing with a health problem. I think an animal also can help us have more of a positive and mindful attitude, too. Just look at the evidence in support of therapy dogs visiting hospital patients.”

What Shapiro says is backed up in the NIH newsletter.

“You can see the difference it makes in so many of these patients when the dog is at their bedside,” Dr. Ann Berger, who works to relieve pain in patients with life-threatening illnesses at the NIH Clinical Center, said in the newsletter. “Our patients are often here for a long period of time. I think the dogs add a bit of normalcy to a very difficult situation. The dog will sit calmly, and the patients don’t have to talk to anyone. They can just pet. I think this helps with some of the suffering.”

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