Having a pet comes with hidden health benefits

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Last Fall, Marietta Cobb of Tucker was a fulltime family caregiver with a lot on her plate, and she was feeling it.

"I was a little lethargic, and just getting through the day to day,” Cobb says.  “My stress levels were quite high, and my blood pressure was creeping up."

Cobb was taking several medications, but her blood work showed things we're getting better.

"I needed a challenge,” she says. “I needed something fun, just for me."

So, in November of 2015, Cobb adopted Oliver, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel rescue, who is now 10-months old, and up for anything.

"He just is ready to interact,” she says.  “So we walk together, we play together. He makes me laugh."

Within a month of getting Oliver,  Cobb's says her sleep problems disappeared.

And after 5 months, she came to see Emory internist Dr. Sharon Bergquist for a checkup.

Bergquist could tell, something about Cobb was different.

"I noticed a big change, just in her general mood,” remembers Bergquist.  “She looked more relaxed.  I could see that she'd lost a lot of weight. Her blood pressure was better."

And Cobb's bloodwork looked better, too.

"Dr. Bergquist just looked at me and said, ‘What have you done differently?’"  And I said, 'The only thing I can think of is I got a puppy,’” Cobb says. “So, Oliver made a huge difference in my health."

Dr. Bergquist isn't surprised pets come with benefits.

"In a lot of studies, we see people who have pets have lower blood pressure, less heart disease,” she says.

Part it comes down to the friendship between people and their pets 

"It doesn't matter if it's a dog. It doesn't matter if it's a cat,” Dr. Bergquist says. “The real issue is that, as humans, we have a need to be social.  That is part of how we're wired.  And the question is, ‘Can pets fill that need?’  And the answer is a resounding, ‘Yes.’"

And research shows that bonding with a pet can lower our levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and boost levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which can make us feel relaxed, happy and connected.

Research shows mothers secrete oxytocin when they’re breastfeeding and bonding with their babies, Bergquist says.

"So when an owner pets their pet, when they gaze into the eyes of their pet, they release this oxytocin and it strengthens the bond,” she says.  “It increases trust, compassion and caring."

And our pets can get us moving.

"People who have pets exercise more,” Bergquist says.  “They're compelled to go out with their pets."

Marietta Cobb and Oliver now walk 2-3 miles a day, something she never found time to do before she got a puppy.   She says he's made her life – and her health -- so much better.

"Sometimes it's a simple fix, a surprising fix,” Cobb says. “And for me it's Oliver."