A Fluffy Guide to Better Health

We read a couple of stories over the past week that made us think about our other loved ones:

It’s just a fluffy animal, right?

The first story related the cases of three pet owners who were previously healthy, but ended up sick because of exposure to dangerous bacteria from their dogs and cats.  One lady licked a dropper used to feed a sick dog, and one held her dying cat and allowed it to lick her hands and arms.  All three of them ended up in the hospital, received antibiotics, and got better within a few days.

The biologist in the second story has been doing research into toxoplasmosis and why we behave in strange ways.  Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite that is transmitted from cats.  His research showed that people who tested positive for the parasite had different reactions to frightening situations, different inhibitions, and different emotional responses to stimulus than people who tested negative for the parasite.

That animals can be bad for our health is certainly nothing new.  We’ve been conditioned and warned our entire lives about rabies, fleas, mad cows, and the host of other scary things that they can bring to our lives.  But what about the good things that they contribute?

According to the Humane Society, there are over 78 million dogs and 86 million cats owned in the United States.  That doesn’t include the strays and feral animals that are skulking around, these are pets in homes.  Over a quarter of these owners had more than one dog, and over half had more than one cat.  We guess they all need playmates.

The Centers for Disease Control seems to think that pets are good for you.  They say that pets can decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol, and provide more opportunities for exercise and socialization.  Studies have shown that people with pets have higher survival rates after heart attacks, maintained healthier weights, and even exhibited better mental acuity.

And we haven’t even started talking about service animals.

Man first domesticated dogs about 10,000 years ago, and the Egyptians domesticated wildcats about 3500 B.C.  Pets were considered as therapy in the mid-1700’s.  It has been shown that playing with a pet increases your body’s production of serotonin and dopamine, chemicals that provide the brain with pleasure and calming properties.  Caring for a pet can decrease depression, and contribute to a sense of purpose for those dealing with diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Some avoid pets for fear of allergies.  Studies have shown that infants who were exposed to pets were actually less likely to develop allergies and asthma.  Pets have also been shown to respond to changes in a human’s body chemistry that are precursors to diabetic episodes and seizures.

There is a certain breed of dog, called a Xolo, which only an owner could love.  It is a hairless dog that is known for generating intense body heat.  The dogs are not known for being large, and owners have been using them to snuggle up against aching joints to combat the pain of chronic arthritis and other lingering pains.

There are some things to know about owning a pet, and not all of it is good.

Pets can be carriers of disease.  Many homes with children choose a low-maintenance pet like a turtle or a lizard, but they can carry salmonella and are not recommended for homes with infants or anyone with a weakened immune system.  Furry pets can also be disease carriers, and you should be vigilant in protecting them from parasites like ticks and fleas.  Fleas were to blame for the rapid spread of the Bubonic Plague in the Middle Ages, and it is estimated that the pandemic killed 60 percent of Europe’s population.

Though many are loathe to admit it, pets have feelings, and a pet that is angry or scared can be a real physical danger to an unwary owner.  Make sure that your little ones know the boundaries with pets, and make sure that pets are not too large for children and elderly owners to handle.

The risk of toxoplasmosis for pregnant women is real.  It isn’t necessarily the cat, though.  The risk is coming from the litter box, and like everything else in life, you should be careful.  Pregnant women should not handle litter, and anyone handling a pet should be sure to wash their hands.

At the end of the day, though, don’t they make you feel better?  If they didn’t, would we still waste so much time on the computer watching them?

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