World Pet Day, and the pros and cons of owning a pet

It is World Pet Day today. Actually, according to some sources it is World Animal Day, which is a significantly wider concept, but for the sake of this post let’s stick to pets.

The decision to get a pet can be quite a significant one. For many it’s a no-brainer, they couldn’t fathom the idea of not having a pet in the house. But at the same time it is a huge responsibility – more so than many people unfortunately realise.  Personally, being a freelance photographer who is regularly away from home on assignments across New Zealand, a pet would complicate things – I need to maintain a lock-up-and-go lifestyle. And having to check your pet into a kennels or cattery each time is a traumatic experience of both pet and owner.

Pets can have various health benefits, not least of all the fact that they make you get out and exercise more.
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There’s a lot to be said for getting a pet. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, for example, Dr Froma Walsh of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago says that “having a pet can meet many human psychosocial needs and has been undervalued in the field of mental health.” Pets reduce stress through the companionship and unconditional love they give their owners. According to Dr Walsh, heart attack survivors who have pets are likely to live longer. Relationships with pets help people through hard times and “provide connectedness in an era when family connections are fragmented.”

There’s a plethora of articles claiming health benefits from pet ownership – these range from decreased risk of heart attack and lower blood pressure, to positive psychological benefits.  I am sure most pet lovers will agree that their pets are beneficial to their health and well-being.

Interestingly enough, however, a recent article from the New York Times suggest that the health benefits of pet ownership may have been overstated. For the elderly, in particular, a cat or a dog can be a potential risk – Judy Stevens of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is quoted as saying “Over 86,000 people per year have to go to the emergency room because of falls involving their dogs and cats, and these fractures can be devastating for the elderly.” Harold Herzog, Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University, furthermore refers to studies that show the more attached elderly people are to their pets, the more depressed they are, that people with strong social networks are not made happier by their pets, and that adolescents with pets reported more psychological problems than those without.

The one area where there does not appear to be an argument is that pet owners, or dog owners to be exact, tend to be more active – according to a Canadian study dog owners walked almost twice as much per week as their dog-free counterparts. And that is definitely a good thing.

Personally I don’t think it is possible to make blanket statements about the benefits (or not) of pets – it probably comes down to personal preference, with the level of benefit derived from a pet being different for different personality types. I do, however, strongly believe that if you do get a pet, you make a multi-year commitment that you need to be sure you can honour – the pet depends on you for love and care and there are way too many abused and abandoned pets already.

So for all the pet owners out there – happy Pet Day, and look after them well. And for the rest of you – go out and get some exercise! 🙂

It’s ‘More Herbs, Less Salt’ Day – time to give your heart a breather

Today, according to those in the know, is ‘More Herbs, Less Salt’ Day. Another of those days that has been thought up to try and nudge us towards a slightly healthier lifestyle (much like ‘Independence from Meat’ Day, that I blogged about earlier).

Indeed, leaning towards herbs, rather than heaps of salt, to season your food is not a bad idea at all. I’m sure anyone who has opened a general lifestyle magazine in the last 10 years will know that salt isn’t all that great for our overly stressed 21st century bodies – our poor hearts already have enough to deal with. Giving the heart a further knock by subjecting it to a high salt diet really isn’t a winning idea.

Using more herbs and less salt not only makes your food healthier, but tastier and prettier too.
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There’s a significant body of research linking high sodium diets to high blood pressure, which in turn is linked to heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease and other nasties. Proving that a decrease in salt actually reduces the risk of heart disease has been more difficult, but a long-term research project conducted a few years ago, aimed to do exactly that. In an article entitled “Long term effects of dietary sodium reduction on cardiovascular disease outcomes: observational follow-up of the trials of hypertension prevention (TOHP)”, the research team from Harvard Medical School presents their results from a long-term follow-up assessment related to a sodium-reduction, hypertension prevention study done 15 years earlier. In the original intervention, a group of adults followed a sodium reduced diet for between 18 and 48 months. From the long-term follow-up research it was found that, compared to the general population, “Risk of a cardiovascular event was 25% lower among those in the intervention group (relative risk 0.75, 95% confidence interval 0.57 to 0.99, P=0.04), adjusted for trial, clinic, age, race, and sex, and 30% lower after further adjustment for baseline sodium excretion and weight (0.70, 0.53 to 0.94), with similar results in each trial.”

This led them to the conclusion that “Sodium reduction, previously shown to lower blood pressure, may also reduce long term risk of cardiovascular events.”

To really put you off a high salt diet, a visit to World Action on Salt and Health, a website dedicated to “improve the health of populations throughout the world by achieving a gradual reduction in salt intake”, should do the trick. Just note, however, that this day (and most scientific research) calls for ‘less salt’, not ‘no salt’. As one of the primary electrolytes in the body, salt is essential for the body to function – just not at the levels that we’re consuming it.

Herbs on the other hand don’t just taste good – they’re like a veritable medicine cabinet in your garden (or pantry, if you don’t grow your own). Besides often being rich in vitamins and trace elements the body needs, specific herbs have long been known for their medicinal effects.

Herbs like chamomile and lavender is known to have a calming effect, parsley, oregano and echinacea can boost the immune system, garlic contains selenium, which can help reduce blood pressure (now there’s a good one to fight the effects of a high sodium diet!), mint and feverfew have been reported to reduce headaches, basil and bergemot fights colds and flu, lemon balm and rosemary is good for concentration and memory… The list goes on.

Of course, as with everything in life, the key is moderation – ‘more herbs’ should not be seen as a license to go overboard on every herb you can lay your hands on. Reckless and injudicious use of herbal supplements can be very detrimental to your health, to say the least. Colodaro State University hosts a nice site, Herbals for Health?, which is worth a read – it gives a balanced overview of the pro’s and cons of a few popular herbal supplements.

Despite the cautionary notes above, culinary herbs, especially freshly home-grown, generally speaking should not cause health risks when used in moderation as an alternative to salt in daily cooking, and that, after all, is what this day is all about. Using herbs in cooking can be a very exciting way to improve your health and well-being, so have fun experimenting with all those new tastes and flavours!