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Could a cat's soft fur or a dog's happy wagging tail improve our health? It could. Here we examine the many ways our pets improve our health.

Dog and cat owners everywhere have suspected it for years, but now we have the proof they've been waiting for: Owning a pet is one of the best forms of stress release, and may boost your health in other ways. At the end of a long, hard day, don't reach for fattening chocolate, artery-clogging comfort food, or a bottle of wine. Reach for your pet.

Fido and Tiddles are the perfect natural remedy for stress, anxiety and depression, studies have found. Owning a dog or a cat may also help prevent serious health events, such as a heart attack or stroke.

Here we explore how our pets repay our devotion with years of health benefits.

Reduced Stress

Did you know that playing with a dog or a cat for just 15 to 30 minutes reduces stress and boosts your mood? When you play with a dog or cat, stress-busting hormones Serotonin and Dopamine are triggered, calming us down and making us feel happier. Meanwhile, our stress hormone, cortisol, starts to go down. High cortisol levels are a result of stress.

You don't have to lay aside any specific time. Interacting with your pet - playing with a piece of string or a ball, stroking, and routine care - all work to trigger your Serotonin and Dopamine and reduce your cortisol.

Stress can also cause a rise in blood pressure. Owning pets reduce blood pressure, with one study finding that, when patients with borderline hypertension (high blood pressure) adopted a dog from a shelter, their blood pressure was significantly lowered within five months.

Lower Cholesterol

Interestingly, Tiddles can be better at lowering cholesterol than Statins (cholesterol lowering medication), a 2006 Canadian study revealed. Cat owners have also been found to have lower cholesterol than those who don't have cats.

Reduced Risk of Stroke and Heart Attack

Owning a cat can reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by a third, working by: reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure, and steadying the heart rate. A longitudinal study examined 4,435 adults aged between 30 and 75, approximately half of whom owned a cat. The 10 year study found that 3.4% of cat owners had a heart attack or stroke over a ten year period, compared to 5.8% of non-cat owners. Even taking into account lifestyle choices such as smoking and health issues such as diabetes, cat owners still had a much lower chance of stroke or heart attack than non-owners.

Another 20-year study by the University of Minnesota (2008) found that cat owners were a huge 40% less likely to die of a heart attack than those who did not own a cat. The results remained the same, even taking into account risk factors such as age, blood pressure and smoking. Dog owners, however, do not reap the same cardiovascular benefits as cat owners, although a separate study found that dog owners who have heart attacks survive longer than heart attack patients without dogs.

Help for Autistic Children

Having a pet can dramatically improve the level of social interaction for Autistic children. Autistic children can live in their own locked-in world, but researchers from the University of Missouri claim having a pet can help to open up the child's world. When they compared the social skills of Autistic children with pets to the social skills of Autistic children without pets, they found that Autistic children with pets had far greater social skills.

It was discovered that Autistic children who had any kind of pet in the house are more likely to introduce themselves, ask questions and respond to the questions of others.

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