Furry Family Members Encourage Healthy Lifestyles


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Zoe is my second dependent. She joined the family when our son was 6. Her big ears and freckles fit right in with the Irish heritage on my husband’s side, although her tendency to bare her belly to strangers and lick everyone she meets are not traits shared by the rest of the family.

At the time we adopted our beagle-mix mutt, our main experience as animal caretakers was looking after friends’ pets during their vacation travels. (After making dinner with a counter companion that also digs in a litter box, I was convinced a cat would not be welcome in my kitchen.) We looked into rescuing a purebred and also decided to visit our local SPCA shelter. With so many unwanted animals in need of a good home, I preferred to adopt.

The first visit to the SPCA was a bit overwhelming. We were greeted by loud barking, rambunctious guests and stark accommodations. Our son took refuge in the cat cage where he was content to allow the soft kittens to crawl all over him. (It took all of my fortitude to remember the counter climbers — and the fact my mother is allergic to cats.)

While trying to disengage our son from the kittens, we chatted with one of the volunteers, who told us she was fostering a dog that might be a good match for our family. The dog was being fostered because she hadn’t adjusted to the shelter environment, but was considered very “adoptable.”

Zoe’s history prior to the shelter was sketchy. But knowing she had lived in a foster home with a girl about our son’s age and an assortment of pets relieved any anxieties about her ability to get along with children and other animals.

Eight years later, it’s hard to remember a time when Zoe wasn’t part of our household. She has given us so much — unconditional love, a reminder to slow down and stroke her soft ears, an introduction to fellow pet-loving neighbors, and a more-than-willing walking companion.

In fact, research backs up what my family discovered — that having a pet is good for mental, emotional and physical health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and feelings of loneliness. And pet ownership may also increase opportunities for exercise, outdoor activities and socialization.

Children gain even more from having a pet in the home. Pets keep quietly whispered secrets, provide lessons about the lifecycle, help develop responsible behavior and a respect for living things, and provide a connection with nature, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. They also can fill emotional needs such as loyalty and affection.

For these reasons, the May 2008 issue of Carolina Parent includes information about pets along with other articles that specifically address children’s health.

Meet a local family that has fostered eight dogs and find out about fostering pets. And parents-to-be who have “furry children” before two-legged ones will find tips from local experts on how to prepare a dog or cat to meet a new baby.

The May pregnancy column also touches on safety issues and commands every family dog should know. Recent research shows that babies in households with multiple pets may have fewer allergies at age 6 or 7 — and not just to animals, but also to ragweed, grass and dust mites. For more about the possible connection between early exposure to dust, dirt, dander and germs and their protective effect against allergies, read the feature article.

Two other articles in this issue address children’s health — and are specifically related to youth fitness and healthy lifestyles. “Kids on the Move” introduces readers to local families whose children train for competitive races or triathlons and the Triangle-area groups that support young runners. And if you thought that kids weren’t supposed to lift weights until they stopped growing, guess again. Read “Weighty Matters for Young Athletes” to learn the new thinking about youth strength training.

As an exercise junkie, I try to give my lungs, heart and other muscles a workout of some sort three or four times a week. But some weeks are busier than others, and sometimes a walk with our pooch is the only exercise I get. On those days, especially, I am grateful for my live-in incentive to go out and get moving. And I’m also thankful for the open heart and home of the family that took care of Zoe until we met her.

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