Jake and Lilly were sitting next to me on the couch one evening. I patted them on their warm backs. They looked at me approvingly with their big brown eyes.
When I reached for the remote control to change the TV channel, they wiggled closer and wagged their tails. I found an old Christmas movie and I settled in to watch with my two warm, furry dachshund companions.
The other four dogs were in another room snoozing in a pile of blankets. They were tired after the youngest, Abby, had been tackling Chester and Toby. I chuckled at the furry mass of playful dachshunds rolling around the floor.
Louie ignored Abby’s puppylike behavior and burrowed under a blanket.
We had three canine visitors during the holidays, when their owner was on vacation. Fortunately, all six dogs get along and enjoyed exploring the snowy trails in our backyard. They chased several bunnies out of the yard.
I benefited from the additional exercise of going outside on an occasional search and rescue mission to usher the dogs in before their paws and bellies got too cold. Dachshunds have short legs, and their nearly furless bellies are close to the ground.
We fed them in two separate “families” because the dominant dogs will eat the others’ food if unsupervised. They were on four different types of pet foods, depending on their age and/or dietary restrictions.
I had to label their bowls to keep track. I am now an experienced dog dietitian.
Jake and Lilly are the heaviest, so I was building my arm and back strength as I lifted them carefully. I cut back on Jake and Lilly’s portions because being too “fluffy” is not good for their backs, joints or their general health. That’s also true for us humans.
When all the dogs were fed and inside from their nature break, I found that sitting with a pet or two was very relaxing. In preparation for their visit, I had covered the couch with washable blankets. I almost fell asleep sitting upright with my “portable heaters” on each side of me.
As I sat with two pets, the level of the stress hormone cortisol was probably decreasing in my body after an especially hectic holiday season. As cortisol decreases, blood pressure decreases.
Nearly 70% of households have a pet of one type or another. What does other research have to say about the health benefits of pets?
Along with potentially decreasing their human friends’ blood pressure, having a pet may help reduce blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. That probably has to do with the increased physical activity.
Pets bring companionship and boost our mood. Many animals have “jobs” as life-changing service or therapy animals.
Researchers have shown that having pets around children may protect them from developing allergies and asthma. However, people who are already allergic to certain animals should not be exposed to them.
The National Institutes of Health has been providing funding for research regarding pets and health for the past 10 years.
For example, researchers studied the influence of reading to live animals vs. reading to animal puppets among children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The children interacting with live animals improved their social skills, and they had fewer behavioral issues in classrooms.
Another study followed children with diabetes who cared for pet fish. As the teens managed the care of fish, they became more disciplined in monitoring and managing their blood glucose levels.
Pets are frequent holiday gifts. These living creatures potentially represent years of companionship, along with responsibility. Before adopting a pet, be aware of the ongoing costs for food and veterinary care, and their needs for exercise, living space and other care.
For my family, being long-term “pet parents” has been a worthwhile investment.
Remember that pets can transfer germs (zoonotic diseases) to humans. Young children, elderly, pregnant and/or immune-compromised people are especially vulnerable.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises special caution about having children under age 5 handle snakes, lizards, turtles and backyard poultry. These creatures often carry salmonella and other types of bacteria, which can result in serious illnesses.
Pregnant women should not clean a cat litter box because cats may carry a parasite that can cause toxoplasmosis that could lead to blindness or brain damage in the baby. Health experts also caution pregnant women against adopting new cats or handling kittens.
Pregnant women also should avoid contact with pet rodents (and mice that could get into homes during winter months). Rodents may carry the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus. The resulting infection could result in serious symptoms in the mother and severe mental disabilities in their infants.
In our house, with all the dog handling going on, we have some rules. Handwashing is key. Be sure to wash hands after playing with a pet, feeding or cleaning up after a pet. After petting an animal, be sure to wash your hands before eating and doing food preparation, too.
Here’s a recipe courtesy of the Midwest Dairy Council, but it’s for humans, not pets. I know our dogs will want a nibble, but they have their own special food. Using a boxed cake mix to make these muffins speeds the preparation time to just 15 minutes.
Yogurt and Banana Spice Muffins
1 (18.25-ounce) box spice cake mix
1 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt (not sugar-free)
2 large eggs
2 large ripe bananas, mashed with a fork
1/2 cup low-fat milk
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 Tbsp. powdered sugar, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat muffin tin cups with nonstick cooking spray. In a large bowl, mix together cake mix, yogurt, eggs, bananas and milk until just combined. Fold in walnuts. Using a 1/4-cup measuring cup, scoop into muffin tins. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the center of a muffin tests clean with a toothpick. Let cool for five minutes in pan on wire rack. Remove from pan and cool completely. If desired, dust the tops of the muffins with powdered sugar before serving.
Makes 20 servings. Each serving has 200 calories, 8 grams (g) fat, 5 g protein, 25 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber and 190 milligrams sodium.
(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson)