My twice-daily walks with my border collie, Clair DeNoon, are the highlights of my day. A new report from the American Heart Association will put an extra spring in my steps on these walks. A panel of experts from the American Heart Association has weighed all the available evidence on pet ownership and cardiovascular disease. The verdict: Having a pet—a dog in particular—likely lowers the risk of heart disease. Some of the connection can be attributed to the extra walks dog owners take. Companionship also contributes. If dog ownership is heart healthy, should everyone who cares about heart health have a dog? No. According to the heart association panel, “the primary purpose of adopting, rescuing, or purchasing a pet should not be to achieve a reduction in cardiovascular risk.”
Americans share their households with an estimated 140 million dogs and cats. For the truly pet-centric among us, these creatures are family members, plain and simple. And like family members, they can transmit disease to their humans, either directly through licks, bites, and scratches; indirectly by carrying other infection-laden critters like fleas and ticks into the human environment, or by shedding tiny infectious organisms into the environment through feces. As a group, these diseases are called zoonoses. Practicing good hand washing and other common-sense personal hygiene measures, and giving your pets good veterinary care, will further reduce the already low risk of getting an unwanted ailment courtesy of your “best friend.”
One of the newest therapists at Harvard Medical School is Cooper, a 4-year-old Shih-Tzu who recently joined the school’s Countway Library as a registered therapy dog. From the confines of his very own office, Cooper is on duty at the Countway to help students, staff, and faculty members who need a little mid-day stress relief. They can spend up to 30 minutes at a time with Cooper by showing their ID at the reference desk. Before becoming a therapy dog, Cooper underwent training with an organization called Caring Canines, where he works when he’s not at Harvard. Studies going back to the early 1980s support the idea that dogs—and other pets—have enormous health benefits for people.