Can Pets Improve Your Health?

Dr. Gendreau and his dog Teddy

A Southcoast doctor shows that pets aren’t just fun — they provide great health benefits

There is no denying that having pets is a big responsibility, but the rewards that come along with it are worth the effort. Studies from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that furry and feathered friends can impart measurable physical benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Dr. Kevin Gendreau, a Family Medicine Physician with Southcoast Health, is a firm believer in the benefits of animal companionship. “The health effects are linked to certain hormones,” Dr. Gendreau says. “When you pet an animal, you release oxytocin, the same hormone released by mothers with newborns. It lowers blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health.”

In addition, there is some evidence that interacting with a pet can lower cortisol, a stress hormone. And some people have slight elevations of serotonin and dopamine — feel-good hormones — when they pet their animals.

Dr. Gendreau also mentions that walking a dog can be a great way to build exercise into your day. He thinks seniors can benefit from having a dog, too, because it provides companionship and gets them out of the house. “Having a dog is a wonderful way to socialize more. A dog is a great reason to spark a conversation.”

As a family physician, Dr. Gendreau treats patients from birth to 100 years old. Sometimes pregnant women will ask him if they should get a dog or cat. He is able to point to statistics that show that newborns who live with a dog are less likely to develop pet allergies, lowering the rate from 1 in 3 with allergies to 1 in 5. These infants also have lower incidence of asthma, allergies and eczema.

But Dr. Gendreau doesn’t make these pronouncements without having done his own “field study.”

“My sister passed away in June 2017 at age 32 of ovarian cancer. The last 18 months of her disease were horrible,” he recalls. “But I did exactly what she told me to do: I got a dog. She even told me the breed and what to name him. About 6 months after she passed, I got my puppy, Teddy, and he has been a huge help in my grieving and recovery process.” 

You can also learn more about Southcoast Health’s connection to the Potter League, which cares for thousands of animals each year.