If you see an obese dog there is a good chance its owner is in similar condition.
If you see an obese dog there is a good chance its owner is in similar condition. Ron Chapple Stock

Petting can get you fit

ARE YOU one of the many Australians who own a pet?

Statistics show that 63% of 7.5 million households have one. In fact, Australia has one of the highest incidences of pet ownership in the world.

But how do we care for pets? Are they couch potatoes? Overweight? Stressed? Bored? And are we?

You might be surprised to know that the health of your pet can say a lot about you.

But if you improve your lifestyle and that of your pet - no more fast food for either of you and much more movement - you'll both benefit, say health experts.

Think of it as going on a health kick with your best friend.

"I do see instances in which the pet reflects the owner and not in a good way," says motivational speaker, personal trainer and author of Life Tips, Mark McKeon.

Caring for a pet, as well as yourself, involves a plan for healthy eating and exercise, he said.

You, the human, should be eating plenty of lean chicken or fish, fruit and vegetables and wholegrain and a healthy pet's diet isn't as far removed from that as you might imagine.

Some good news: switching them to a natural diet may even be cheaper than buying them canned food and they'll quickly be a lean, mean, canine machine. Of course, if you have a cat, more natural food can help too, improving weight control and oral health.

Holistic veterinarian and author Dr Clare Middle says: "The problem is, dogs and cats eat only a small amount of cereal naturally and they digest their nutrients best from not hard cooked food but sloppy, partly fermented gut contents of the carcasses they kill.

"They also get nutrients from rotting fruit and these are all highly rich in trace elements and fatty acids in a highly digestible form."

She suggests you keep a bowl on your kitchen sink and put leftovers such as fruit, low-fat yoghurt and cheese, egg, vegies (except for onions) and salad in it. That's what you're eating right?

Add some raw meat and some fish or flaxseed oil and both you and your pet are ahead in the health stakes. Fish and flaxseed oil is great for you too. Numerous studies have shown these oils can help reduce inflammation in the body that leads to chronic conditions including heart disease and arthritis.

More good news for your health if you're a dog owner.

"Dogs create an obligation to exercise and you'll find that once you get used to taking them out for a walk, you'll actually enjoy it," says McKeon.

He suggests creating an exercise circuit in a park, where you can take your dog. Just like humans, exercise in a green space boosts their mood and wellbeing.

If you have a cat, there's probably not enough opportunity to share an exercise regime but one of our reporters did recently see a local taking his cow for a walk. So, think laterally. Even a pet pig may be good for your health, if only in that having a pet has been proven to reduce stress.

People in stress mode secrete harmful chemicals like cortisol and norepinephrine can negatively affect the immune system, according to Blair Justice, PhD, author of Who Gets Sick: How Beliefs, Moods, and Thoughts Affect Your Health.

But petting your dog or cat can raise the level of feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine, he says.

A recent study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, even found that children who grow up in homes with pets are less likely to suffer from allergies.

Dogs as medical detectives

We already know that people who own pets are more likely to have lower blood pressure. But a study by Amersham Hospital in Buckingham and published in the British Medical Journal found that dogs were able to detect bladder cancer in humans through changes in the smell of their urine.

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