Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Pet Might Improve Your Health

Getting a dog? A pet might improve your health.

By Christie Aschwanden December 15

With final exams bearing down on them this month, nearly 1,000 students at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond turned out for “Paws for Stress” — a chance to pet and play with therapy dogs.

Pets were once considered a leisure interest, one best kept at home. But there’s a growing recognition that in addition to companionship, animals may offer humans a tangible health boost. VCU is just one of many colleges making therapy dogs available to students to help them cope with the stresses of finals, says Sandra Barker, a researcher at the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at VCU’s medical school and an organizer of the event.

Humans have a long history of keeping creature companions, and if you ask most animal lovers if their beloved pet makes their life better, they’ll say yes. But can a pet improve our health? That’s a question that researchers are beginning to investigate. The field is still in its late infancy, says Barker, and the evidence remains mixed. At the moment, some of the best evidence for the benefits of pet interactions comes in the mental health arena, she says.

When fingers meet fur, people tend to relax and feel less stressed, says Steven Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation, a group funded by the pet product industry. One recent review of 69 studies found evidence that human-animal interactions could lift mood and reduce stress and anxiety, perhaps by activating the hormone oxytocin.

Though it’s not clear how strong or long-lasting the effects are, students who attend Paws for Stress events generally report at least a temporary drop in stress levels, Barker says. For instance, upon arriving at this month’s event, one student told Barker that she had a headache from the stress of studying. After five minutes petting and playing with one of the dogs, Barker says, the student looked up and told her, “My headache’s gone.”

Numerous programs use service dogs to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although having a canine companion around seems to raise a person’s mood, there’s not enough research yet to clarify to what extent such animal interactions might help ease PTSD symptoms, according to the National Center for PTSD, which is part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Depression is another common target for animal therapy. A small randomized, controlled trial whose results were published in 2005 found that therapy providing interaction with dolphins reduced symptoms of depression. Similarly, a 2007 meta-analysis published in Britain concluded that therapy animals can help ease depression, but it cautioned that more and better designed studies are needed to clarify the effects. Indeed, not every study has found a benefit. A 2006 study found no significant decrease in depression among residents of another long-term-care facility who had weekly visits with a therapy dog.

The benefits of animal-human interactions may extend to physical health, too. In May of 2013, the American Heart Association released a statement concluding that pet ownership is “probably associated with decreased cardiovascular disease risk.”

“If you look at people with and without pets, those with pets tend to be healthier heart-wise,” says Glenn Levine, a cardiologist at Baylor College of Medicine who was on the committee that wrote the AHA statement. Studies that Levine’s group assessed included ones finding that pet owners have lower blood pressure, lower resting heart rates and less risk of hypertension than people without pets. What’s not clear, he says, is whether having a pet makes people healthier or if it’s just that healthier people are more likely to own a pet. “The evidence that it’s a causal relationship is not as strong,” Levine says.

Studies show that if you subject people to a stressful situation with a dog in the room, they have smaller increases in heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline and other stress-related factors than if there is no pet present, Levine says, but the mechanisms for most of these associations remain unknown.

The most obvious way that a pet might help you become healthier is if it motivates you to get out and exercise. “The one mechanism that makes the most sense is if people adopt a dog and then walk it regularly and in doing so increase their own daily physical activity,” Levine says.

But not every dog owner becomes a vigilant dog walker, and when Rebecca Utz at the University of Utah examined the links between pet ownership and health measures among about 2,500 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, she found that people who kept cats or even fish as pets actually logged more physical activity than people with dogs. “You can’t explain the effect of pet ownership on dog walking,” she says.

Therapy dogs to the rescue

The Wag Brigade’s certified therapy dogs patrol the city’s airport to calm stressed travelers during the holiday season.

Still, she did find an association between pet ownership and health: Pet owners were less obese, had better self-reported health, less asthma and fewer cardiovascular problems than people without pets. But Utz says that her data also showed that people who had pets tended to be of higher socioeconomic status, which probably explains the association.

“What you shouldn’t do is go out and adopt an animal for the sole reason of wanting health benefits,” Levine says. “The primary reason to rescue an animal should be to give a pet a loving home.” If your new pet gives your lifestyle a healthy boost, consider it a bonus.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Flying with Pets: How to Ensure Safe Passage

Some important considerations when flying with your pets this Holiday season.

Flying with pets: How to ensure safe passage

With the holiday travel season in full swing, it's a good time to consider expert advice on how best to manage your itinerary. After all, Thanksgiving through New Year's spans some of the busiest days of the year for commercial flying in the United States.
But for those whose family includes furry members, it's also a good time to consider whether four-legged loved ones should fly at all. It's an issue that has been back in the news in recent weeks, after passenger Frank Romano's dog was lost by Delta Air Lines in Los Angeles on Halloween, allegedly after chewing through a plastic kennel.
Can some animals travel safely, either in the cabin or the belly of an aircraft? Yes. But it's a more complex issue than many pet owners realize, so a little research can be critical.
Weighing the risks
Since I last addressed this issue here in 2009 with "What you need to know about flying with pets," there has been an increase in guidance from animal care experts. There also has been additional evidence of the dangers, with more robust government statistics on animals that have been lost, injured or killed while in the care of U.S. airlines.
Some pets should not be flying at all -- ever. The American Humane Association advises: "As a general rule, puppies and kittens, sick animals, animals in heat and frail or pregnant animals should not travel by air." Furthermore, the Humane Society of the United States warns "air travel is particularly dangerous for animals with 'pushed-in' faces," such as bulldogs, pugs and Persian cats; some airlines will not accept them.
In addition, during this holiday season, some regions of the United States will be too cold for pet travel, while other regions will be too hot, making the booking process quite difficult. Minimum and maximum temperature guidelines apply, and they also apply to connecting cities along the way. Last year I assisted some family members who relocated to Central America by shipping their dog to them; although it was a crisp fall day in Newark and not particularly hot at the destination, the airline refused to board the dog because the temperature was soaring in Miami, the connecting hub.
In fact, there are so many dangers, concerns and nuances involved in flying with pets, three entire columns could be devoted to offering specific advice. So for detailed guidance, consider the experts who created these pages:
• The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Air Travel Tips
• The Humane Society's Travel Safely
• The American Humane Association's Traveling
• The American Veterinary Medical Association's Traveling with Your Pet
All four of these organizations also provide advice for those who travel by alternate modes, such as car, bus, train and ship.
It's important to note pet travel policies usually don't apply to service animals, andexceptions may apply for U.S. military and State Department personnel.
Learning the rules
First things first: Before you query individual airline policies, you need to review governmental restrictions. The U.S. Department of Transportation provides guidelines on Transporting Live Animals for both owners and shippers at its site. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration features a Flying with Pets page; it includes critical information on security screening and rules for pets in the passenger cabin.
For those traveling with pets in foreign countries -- or importing or exporting pets -- there are specific requirements, detailed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For a rundown on foreign rules, country-by-country regulations are provided by the industry's global trade organization, the International Air Transport Association.
Once you've addressed all these issues, you'll need to learn the specific policies of the carrier you'll be booking, since they do vary. (So do the perks, such as frequent-flier mileage for four-legged friends.) Each airline has its own rules on which animals it will and will not carry, specific regulations for cabin and belly travel and policies on containers. Of course, in this golden age of airline "ancillary revenue," fees can vary for such services.
Here are links to more information from the largest domestic carriers:
* In this age of airline consolidation, it's worth noting American specifically states its merger partner US Airways has "different policies on pet travel."
Grading the airlines
So how do these domestic airlines perform when it comes to handling your furry fellow travelers? Thankfully, for nearly ten years now U.S. carriers are required to report all incidents to the DOT, and those reports are viewable to the public, though some animal lovers may find them tough reading.
Although the DOT has been posting such records since May 2005, in the early years it did not summarize the annual findings as it does with all other airline performance categories, such as flight delays and consumer complaints. Currently the annual totals are summarized, and here is how the airlines stacked up in 2013:
* Operates on behalf of Alaska, American and Delta
U.S. airlines not listed did not report any anomalies last year. However, what remains unclear is the total number of animals carried by each of the airlines, so consumers can't analyze these statistics on a proportional basis. But since the totals for Alaskaand United are so significantly higher than for all other domestic airlines, it can be instructional to view the detailed incident reports linked above.
A few last words ...
The sites listed above can address most of your questions about flying with pets. But consider this:
• The first step always is checking with your veterinarian to see if your pet is healthy enough to fly.
• For those seeking to transport a pet without accompanying it, the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association offers pet owners advice on finding pet shippers, as well as warnings about pet scams.
• By the way, some well-meaning sites suggest you book a "direct flight," not realizing that in airline-speak direct flights make stops en route; ideally, you'll want to book a "nonstop flight," though this may not be possible in many cases. It's also important to know if all legs of an itinerary will be operated by the same carrier or a codeshare partner, particularly since so many domestic routes today are serviced by regional partners.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an e-mail at travel@usatoday.com. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Shop Holiday: A few gifts for your favorite pet

Do not forget your pets during the holiday gift giving! Some ideas for pet gifts.

Shop Holiday: A few gifts for your favorite pet

We’ll spend more than $58 billion this year on our pets, according to the American Pet Products Association. Here are some gifts for them that won’t break your piggy bank:
If cats could talk, they’d tell you that meals taste best straight out of the cat food can. The Luxury Cat Dish from toy and novelty retailer Archie McPhee holds everything from kibble to caviar. This 5-inch ceramic tuna can is pet- and human-safe. $16.95 at mcphee.com
National Geographic and PetSmart have joined forces to market a line of pet toys that entertain and exercise pets and encourage interaction with their humans. Cat toys include a jellyfish, lizard, electronic caterpillar and slithering snake. These colorful toys satisfy a cat’s chase and hunt instincts by simulating the movements of prey in the wild. Proceeds benefit animal conservation and habitat preservation. Jellyfish Teaser — $7.99 at PetSmart.

(Click image for larger version)
Clothing for dogs is big business, and there’s one wardrobe item that’s practical. Dog footwear can help protect paw pads from road salt, rocks and mud. Combine them with one of several pet-safe ice-melting products for sidewalks, like Morton Safe-T-Pet Care Ice Melt or Safe Paw. Shown: Good2Go waterproof socks ­— $19.99 at Petco.
Fish are tough to shop for, but you can give them a more natural habitat with a collection of aquatic plants to perk up their aquarium decor. Petland in East Liberty offers a wide range of plants that will thrive in water, including Jungle Bamboo, Corkscrew Vallisneria, Lemon Bacopa and Amazon Sword. Prices range from $1.99 to $10.99.
A professional pet portrait is a great way to show off four-legged family members as well as two-legged ones. A number of professional photographers specialize in pet portraits. The studios at Premier Imaging in Northway Mall are now pet-friendly and equipped with a variety of imaginative backdrops. Prices range from $19 to $59.
Put your pet under surveillance and catch them when they sneak onto the couch or kitchen counter. The Motorola Scout 500-2 Video Pet Monitor consists of a monitoring unit and two indoor cameras. It has two-way communication so you can talk to your pet from another room. Infrared night vision allows monitoring in low light. $99 at PetSmart.
BarkBox is the gift that keeps on giving all year. This subscription service delivers a box with four or more toys, bones and treats to your pooch every month. BarkBox donates 10 percent of its profits to shelters and other animal-related organizations. Plans start at $18/month.
The American Kennel Club offers Woofipedia boxed collections of toys, treats and personalized items that range in price from $40 to $50. Available at shop.woofipedia.com

Animal Planet’s Sherpa Blanket for dogs is an ultra-soft 40-by-50-inch blanket that also works as a car seat/couch cover. Proceeds benefit Animal Planet’s Reach Out. Act. Respond animal advocacy initiative. $9.99 at Tuesday Morning.