Small white dog lies on grass facing up with ears above head. Dog's eyes are closed and mouth looks to be smiling.

Paws for stress relief: How pets can help your health

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Look into your pet’s eyes gazing at you with unconditional devotion. Feel your body relax and your mind calm as your hand glides over soft, warm fur. Sense your tensions give way to invigoration with every movement and breath as you play with a four-legged companion.

Researchers can explain that “ahhh” feeling that millions of Americans experience with companion and therapy animals. Interaction with pets releases oxytocin, a calming feel-good hormone that helps us bond with babies and loved ones. That leads to lower levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in our systems. The effects on our nervous and cardiovascular systems can have profound health benefits.

Stress and your heart

“Increased amounts of stress raise cortisol levels,” says Danny Le, DO, FACC, cardiologist on the medical staff at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center. “That in turn increases blood pressure and bad cholesterol, which then leads to increasing your risk for or worsening cardiovascular disease.”

Pressure from work as well as financial and health concerns top the causes of stress in the U.S. Seventy-seven percent of people surveyed reported feeling physical symptoms caused by stress.

The American Heart Association (AHA) continues to research the link between stress and cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. They see a critical need for novel strategies and interventions to reduce risk and mortality. Pets have caught their attention.

The power of pets

A panel of AHA experts weighed all the available evidence on the health benefits of pet ownership. Multiple studies demonstrated that pet owners, particularly dog owners, enjoy many health benefits:

  • Increased physical activity
  • Lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels
  • Lower systemic blood pressure
  • Better responses to stress
  • Improved survival rates after a heart attack.

“Most of that is related to an increase in physical activity,” Dr. Le says. “For overall cardiovascular health, the AHA recommends 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, like a brisk walk, five days a week. Walking your dog is an easy way to make that happen.”

While the AHA’s statement concluded that dog ownership especially is associated with decreased cardiovascular disease risk, the health benefits don’t stop with dogs. Several studies also showed stress-reducing benefits with less conventional pets, such as goats, fish, snakes, and even “virtual” animals in video recordings. Maybe that explains the popularity of cat videos on the internet!

Did you know?

Four Methodist hospitals have pet therapy programs. To learn how to have your pet trained for these programs, contact:

Methodist Charlton: 214-947-7676

Methodist Dallas: Heart of Texas Therapy Dogs,

Methodist Mansfield: 682-242-7301

Methodist Richardson: 469-204-1175.

Get a behind-the-scenes look at Methodist Health System’s pet therapy programs.