Who needs Prozac when you can have a dog or a cat? Study after study has demonstrated that dogs are good for us. There's lots of evidence that living with dogs affects health, decreasing blood pressure and adjusting the neuro-chemical balance in the brain to help us to feel good. But what about cats?
There are more cats than dogs in America (81.7-million pet cats and 72.1-million dogs, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook).
For the first time, as far as anyone can tell, the potential medical benefits of cats were considered in a University of Minnesota Stroke Research Center study of 4,435 people who were followed for a decade. Cats proved even more beneficial than dogs. People without cats, or who never had cats, had a 40 percent greater risk of dying of a heart attack, and a 30 percent greater risk of dying of any cardiovascular-related disease. The study showed no such protective benefits for dog owners.
Dr. Adnan Qureshi, the study's lead investigator and executive director of the Stroke Center, says, "We know that stress and anxiety are factors leading to cardiac disease. If a pet can ameliorate stress and anxiety, clearly having a pet is beneficial. In the past, studies have considered dogs but never cats. This is only one study, but it's a start."
Qureshi can't explain why his study showed no protective value for having a dog. "Perhaps petting a cat is even more helpful than we thought," he says.
It's unclear why people benefit from petting dogs. Probably it's the therapeutic touch, combined with a response we receive back in return, a wagging tail, and pleasant facial gestures. But cats do something dogs can't: They purr.
Cats purr as a sign of contentment but also as a sort of self-soothing medication. Veterinarians know cats purr even when in pain and at the end of life when they're about to be euthanized. "If cats are able to self-soothe through purring, maybe the purring soothes humans in some way we don't understand," says Qureshi.
A growing number of medical experts are convinced cats are as beneficial to health as dogs. Scientific documentation aside, there are too many anecdotal stories to discount.
Denise McDade of Sandwich, Ill., rescued a cat she named Maverick in 2003. Maverick began waking her at night, and each time her nose had begun to bleed. Doctors are treating the nosebleeds, and successfully stop them for days or weeks. But whenever they're about to recur, Maverick alerts his owner. "Maverick will even run from another part of the house and begin to scream at me," McDade says. "I know this means my nose has begun bleeding or will start to any second."
McDade has no idea how her cat is able to predict the bleeding. "I'm just glad because it's easier for me to control the bleeding if I catch it early. So, I feel more at ease. There's no question Maverick and I have an amazing bond."
This sort of bond and behavior has been written about with dogs but rarely with cats. It turns out McDade also has a dog. She notes with a laugh, "The dog has no clue. He just wants to play and eat."
Qureshi says the day is near when doctors may write prescriptions to "Get a pet — a dog or a cat." Certainly, there's no side effect to stroking a dog or cat to relieve anxiety.
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