A new meaning for “sick as a dog”? Your pet’s health can tell you about yours

The last time I took my dog, Pepper, for her annual checkup, the vetI raised an eyebrow and checked the medical records. “Same dog?” she asked, clearly surprised that Pepper’s recorded age didn’t match the shiny ball of fur bouncing four feet off the ground in front of her. At 17 years old, this Chihuahua spaniel is an iconic dog of ultra-longevity, and I’m delighted that she seems to be enjoying life with such enthusiasm. But as I approach fifty, I have to admit that my celebration of Pepper’s good health has sparked a much more selfish thought: Could my longtime companion’s well-being bode well for my own?

Recent studies have supported the idea that pets are good for our health. Whether it’s their companionship or their insistence that we get off the couch and move (or both), research shows that pets can lower blood pressure, improve our mood, and even help us to live longer. But I was wondering something else: does the health of a pet reflect the health of its human?

I asked Joseph Bartges, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia, this question. Bartges was involved in the One Health from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initiative, an effort co-led by doctors and veterinarians to find commonalities in their work.

“As veterinarians, we often see animals that have the same health problems as their human companions or that are sentinels of a human health problem,” he said, attributing this to the fact that animals and their owners share the same environment and spend a lot of time. together.

“The trend toward processed foods and everything that’s happening with industrialization is making us both sick,” he added, citing the growing number of diet and lifestyle problems – as diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases and cancer – in pets too. like humans.

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Indeed, when Dutch researchers studied animal-human pairs, they found that overweight dogs were more likely to have overweight owners. As this was an observational study, it’s impossible to determine why this is the case, but the data suggests that less time spent walking was the best predictor of whether the couple was overweight. Another study from Germany suggested that we tend to impose our own snacking habits and attitudes about portion sizes and processed foods on our pets, which can influence the number of calories they consume per day. Obesity is also a health problem for cats, but their body mass does not match that of their human companion as closely. This may be because cats are more capable of exercise.

“I see connections (with pet owners) in the office all the time,” said veterinarian Janet Foley, a One Health supporter who runs the Sonoma County Mobile Veterinary Hospital in Northern California. “But you have to be careful how you raise these delicate issues. Luckily, I’m a people person, but it’s harder for vets who are pet only.

Foley said she focused on providing lifestyle advice to the animal. “But then I see a light bulb go off (for the owner). They think, “I should do that too.” »

Our pets can offer other perspectives on our health problems.

Take your chronic sniffles, for example. If you think they might be caused by allergies, you may want to see if your symptoms are shared by the family dog. Urban living, small family sizes, and disconnection from nature and other animals were linked to a higher risk of allergies in humans and their dogs, according to a recent study in Finland. (Dogs with allergies get canine atopic dermatitis, which is a type of canine eczema.) On the other hand, dogs and their owners who lived on a farm or in a house with many animals and children, or regularly visited a forest, were protected from allergies.

Although there is still a lot to discover about this. »farm effect“, many immunologists are convinced that microbes play an important role. From birth (and eventually in utero), the combinations of microbes found in rural and natural environments appear to train the immune systems of puppies and kids and make them less hyper-reactive. This idea is reinforced by the discovery that the skin microbiome of dogs and humans with allergies differs from that of their healthy counterparts.

Foley mentioned another way animal allergies could give us a new perspective on our personal health. Feline asthma, she explained, is often triggered by tobacco smoke. So, every time she makes this diagnosis, she will ask if there is a smoker in the house. “Sometimes a whistling cat can give someone the information they need to understand that smoking is bad for their own health,” she said.

Pets also provide insight into our mental well-being and the strength of our social interactions. “It appears that dogs are able to understand the mental state and emotions of their caregiver,” said Therese Rehn, a small animal researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. One of his studies found that people with an avoidant attachment style – that is, they run away from their feelings – often have dogs who separate from their owners when faced with a social stressor. “They don’t view their landlord as a safe haven,” she said. A recent study reported in Nature supports the idea that our animal’s emotional state can mirror our own. Researchers measured hair cortisol levels (an indicator of chronic stress) in dog-human pairs and discovered a high degree of interspecies synchrony. In general, this “emotional contagion” seemed to be transmitted from humans to their dogs, not the other way around.

According to Bartges, feline idiopathic cystitis is an example of a thorny animal health problem that can give us insight into our own psychology. Cats with idiopathic cystitis do not have a urinary tract infection, but they have blood in their urine, are very restless, use the litter box frequently, and urinate in the house. (Except for the litter box issue, this looks exactly like interstitial cystitis, a health problem I often see in my patients.)

“Idiopathic cystitis is caused by stress in the home, and owners of cats with idiopathic cystitis are usually stressed about having cats with idiopathic cystitis and they feed on themselves,” Bartges said. Her research indicates that simply treating the owner’s anxiety by making them feel heard can often make the cat’s symptoms go away. “This is a case where caring for the owner is just as important as caring for the animal,” he added.

I may be guilty of confirmation bias – interpreting evidence in a way that confirms my hypothesis – but every veterinarian I’ve spoken with has validated the idea that a pet’s health can often mirror our own: anxiety, obesity, allergies, gastrointestinal infections, and even insomnia are all disorders that can exist in pet ownership dyads.

In fact, given all of these associations, I ask all of my patients if they have pets at home and, if so, how those pets are doing. I also ask patients if they receive any personal health advice (directly or indirectly) from their veterinarian. The number of times I hear “Why yes!” It’s incredible. One patient credited his veterinarian for solving his long-term sleeping problem. (“He told me to treat my dog ​​for fleas, get rid of his noisy collar and get him out of bed.”) Another said it was her vet’s gentle persistence that pushed her to stop smoking,

Kate Hodgson, a veterinarian at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, has written extensively about incorporating the One Health approach into a doctor’s visit. She recommends that primary care physicians regularly ask questions about pets and consider collaborating with the family veterinarian, as long as patients give permission.

Bartges wants to go even further. “More than 90% of pet owners consider (their pets) a member of the family, so why not create a multi-specialty practice where you can see them all together in the same room?” »

Maybe he’s onto something. This could be the next trend in healthcare.

Meanwhile, since our last vet visit, I noticed that Pepper was developing a cataract. Maybe it’s time for me to do itI’m also going to have my eyes examined.

Daphne Miller is a family physician and author of “Farmacology” and “The Jungle Effect.”

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