Encourage pets for member health, cost improvements


Insurers often recommend actions their members can take to improve their health and prevent costly, stressful diseases. They also may want to consider giving out some unusual advice: Members should get a pet.

Cats and dogs provide so many benefits for their owners, including companionship, reduced stress and increased exercise. Now there's tangible evidence proving pet ownership helps improve physical and mental health.

"A powerful neurochemical, oxytocin, is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy," Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, told Time magazine. "It's also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone."

As a pet owner myself, I know firsthand how well those furry friends can calm our nerves and bring us joy. My dogs help boost my activity level as I walk them most days and run around and play with them in my backyard. They also offer some peace and tranquility as they cuddle up by my side each evening offering nothing but love.

"There is a bond and companionship that makes a big difference in mental health," Gary Christenson, chief medical officer at Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota, told Time.

The newest furry baby in our family, a puppy we adopted a few months ago, fills us all with joy as we watch her explore the world with wonder and interest. Her gusto for all things is contagious and often creates a trickle effect of hearty laughter among the people in her life. And oh can she cuddle! If I'm feeling stressed, I just call our puppy over and she devotedly curls up in my lap, offering me nothing but unconditional love. My stress always eases--how could it not?

But don't take my word for it. Several studies have shown the health benefits of owning an animal. Here are some Time magazine gathered together:

  • A survey from the Australian National Heart Foundation concluded that people who own pets, especially men, usually have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
  • Research from the State University of New York at Buffalo revealed blood pressure response to stress can be decreased by 50 percent among people who have a cat or dog and take medications for hypertension
  • A study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health showed dog owners are more likely to walk than nonowners and were 54 percent more likely to meet federal recommended levels of physical activity.
  • A separate study from the University of Missouri found dog owners walked an average of 300 minutes a week; nonowners walked just 168 minutes.
  • A review of studies by the British Psychological Society determined that animals, dogs especially, lower stress levels and enhance self-esteem.

"The calming presence and the social bond that pets bring can be very powerful," Christenson added. "When a pet pays attention to you, they're giving you unconditional love and acceptance."

Maybe we'll soon see insurers launching new initiatives encouraging consumers to invest in a pet--and we'll all experience benefits to our health and savings. - Dina (@HealthPayer)