Pets are a lot of work. There's the cleaning up after them, the walks, training, shedding, vet bills and occasional chewed shoe or scratched couch. With that in mind, few people look at their panting dog or shedding cat and think, "You could save my life someday." But a large body of evidence indicates that perhaps we should. A quick internet search reveals that pets are often responsible for more than creating extra work. They're saving people's lives.

Short-legged fire alarm

What inspired my search was my friend Michael's story about a dachshund he had years ago. His wife was taking a nap in their apartment on a warm spring day. The windows were open and a gentle breeze was floating in. The nap was abruptly ended when the couple's dachshund began hurling herself at his wife's chest. She awoke to smoke pouring in the open window. The neighbor in the apartment below had left an iron on, starting a fire that quickly raged out of control. Thanks to their short-legged pooch, Michael's wife was able to gather up the dog and their cat, plus an elderly neighbor down the hall, bringing them all to safety.

What's interesting about Michael's story, and many more like it, is that many pets with no formal training (or informal training, for that matter) are responsible for similar heroic endeavors. There are countless stories of dogs, cats and even birds who alert the rest of the family to smoke or carbon monoxide in the air long before a detector does its job. It's not surprising that animals can detect dangerous smells before a human can, but the fact that they know to alert us - well, maybe Lassie was more reality-based than anyone gave credit for.

Lifeguard with a tail

And pets aren't always particular about who they save. In a recent Colorado case, a girl was playing with her yellow Labrador, Zion, in their back yard when the dog took off and jumped in the river behind the house. Zion, who was described as "not well trained," had heard the screams of a nine-year-old boy who had been swept away by the river after his boat flipped over. Zion plunged into the ice-cold river, swam to the boy and dragged him to shore.

Natural super heroes

If you think about it, pets' instincts naturally make them potential super heroes. Dachshunds like to bark and jump on people and Labradors love the water. They're made for this stuff. Though many also overreact to perceived threats (trash collector, mail carrier, vacuum cleaner, etc.) they often get it right when there really is impending danger and act accordingly. Those instincts, plus the right training, are why service animals, police dogs and search-and-rescue dogs have been trained and utilized for helping people for decades. But even with no training whatsoever, family pets are helping people, too.

Miniature rattlesnake wrangler

Consider Zoey, a five-pound Chihuahua. She was in her Colorado back yard last summer when she spotted a rattlesnake about to strike her owners' one-year-old grandson. While the little boy was occupied with splashing his hands in a birdbath, the rattler moved in. Zoey charged between the snake and the boy and took the venomous strikes. After emergency care, Zoey pulled through and the boy was untouched. Anyone who's met a little dog, Chihuahuas in particular, knows they can be scrappy. Zoey is definitely the hero in the case, but she was just doing what most dogs do: confronting the threat head-on.

Felines prolong life

Dogs seem to fill most of the hero spotlights in the news, but don't trade in the family cat for a ferocious Chihuahua just yet. According to a recent study, even if your cat is unlikely to leap into an icy river or fight a rattlesnake in your defense, just having one around can prolong your life. Dr. Adnan Qureshi, executive director of the Minnesota Stroke Institute at the University of Minnesota, conducted a 10-year study that found cat owners were an astonishing 30 percent less likely to die from heart attacks compared to non cat owners. The report, which came out early this year, supported findings from other studies that show pets can greatly impact a person's cardiovascular health, simply by being in their presence. The act of petting a dog or cat has been shown to lower stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure.

Sure, sometimes pets can cause stress, increased heart rate and blood pressure (remember the chewed shoes?). But the facts are straightforward enough that while the normal "pet stuff" your dog or cat does can sometimes be annoying or inconvenient, what you get in return makes it all worthwhile. In fact, it could save your life.


Kelli Ohrtman is a freelance writer from Minneapolis who works at Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. www.kelliohrtman.com.