In the last decade, the medical community has come to recognize the importance of our connection to the world of companion animals. Although dogs play the most major role in improving the health of people, cats, horses, birds and fish have also been shown to contribute to our well-being.
The roles companion animals play in our lives can be divided into four main categories. They are physical, emotional, social, and cognitive roles. In their physical role pets contribute the following benefits: increased exercise, sensory stimulation, decreased blood pressure, the comfort of touch, and a diversion from pain. Animals provide emotional benefits as they shower us with unconditional love and attention, allow spontaneous expression of emotion, reduce our loneliness, decrease our anxiety, provide us with increased relaxation & fun and bring laughter into our lives. Our pets provide social benefits as well such as: providing recreation, security, relieving the boredom, monotony and isolation of life in institutional settings, and allowing us the opportunity to communicate with an animal and to others about our animal. The fourth contribution pets make is of a cognitive nature. We are more likely to exercise our long and short term memory in discussion of our present and former pets.
Pets help us live more energetic lives. Dogs need to be walked, horses need to be ridden, things need to be done for the comfort and care of our pets. People suffering from arthritis have been shown to live more active lives because they are forced to get up and move about to care for their pets. People with back problems are helped by riding horses, as the action of the horse's gait lubricates the joints of the rider's spine. Horses have been used with handicapped patients with a variety of benefits. Not just does riding improve their physical condition , but it gives the patient the self-esteem of being "high in the saddle." Riding programs have been developed for children with cerebral palsy and spastic muscle disorders. The advantages are that it is highly motivating, improves self-image, and may, more than other kinds of exercise, have a special value in reducing spasticity. Daily horseback riding was prescribed for melancholy and hysteric patients centuries ago and it was shown to improve their mental condition. Riding gets invalids outdoors, gives them the ability to participate in nature, and allows them to cover ground and see sights they wouldn't normally. Therapeutic riding programs exist locally, both in Fremont and in Woodside.
Dogs also serve us in many physical ways. We feel safer with a dog around the house or on walks. They warn us of the approach of strangers and protect our homes from intruders. They assist the deaf , are guides for the blind, helpers for the disabled, sniffer dogs for customs, & rescue dogs for people who are missing or buried. They herd sheep, round up cattle, hunt, with or without the aid of human hunters, dig great holes, and, now are being used in psychotherapy sessions.
Dr. Janet Ruckert, a psychotherapist, has been using dogs and cats in her therapy practice for some time. In her book, The Four-Footed Therapist, she explains how the pets in her practice help people open up and express their feelings. In observing pets, Ruckert states that living with a pet is like living with an instant relaxation therapist. She notes that pets find the most comfortable place in the house to relax and strive for a stress-free existence. She advises her patients to imitate this behavior. Although having a pet therapist is not a cure, it does go a long way toward helping patients recover from mental and physical illness. Anyone who has ever sat stroking a dog's velvety ears or scratching a cat's head while it purrs contentedly understands how stress-relieving a pet can be. It has been shown that watching fish swim in a fish tank has a stress-relieving effect. Patients in a dentist's office were tested before and after viewing the office aquarium. After viewing the tank, patients were less nervous about having dental work done. However, we have more than anecdotal evidence of the medical benefits of pets.
The role of pets in alleviating physical illness has come under study in recent years. Aaron Katcher, MD , professor of psychiatry, and Alan Beck, Sc.D, professor of animal ecology, at the Univ. of Penn., studied the relationship between people and their pets. They found that pet owners humanize their pets, and this humanization affects one's sense of self-esteem and health. Almost all pet owners talked to their pets, but it was found that 94% talked to them as if they were people. This relationship had health implications. The mere presence of the animal had a beneficial effect on heart function, and stroking and talking to a pet reduced blood pressure and stress. A study by the US Dept. of Public Health concluded that "pets increased the survival rate of heart attack victims. Only 3 out of 53 heart patients (or about 6%) who owned pets died, whereas 11 out of 39 patients (28%) who didn't own pets died, after suffering serious heart attacks. In an Australian study of 6000 volunteers who were screened for common conditions associated with cardiac problems, 15% who owned dogs proved to have much fewer of the predictors of heart disease, such as high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol levels. Those differences were observed regardless of other lifestyle patterns and habits of those studied, including diet, exercise, or smoking. More surprisingly, the pet owners proved to be among some of the worst in terms of choosing heart-healthy meals. They consumed meats at a higher volume than average and ate more fast food. And still their risks were reduced. Studies at the Baker Medical Research Institute also showed that pet ownership had health benefits for the heart. Pet owners were found to have cholesterol levels 2% lower than those without pets, effecting a 4% reduction of heart attack risk. Owning a pet can reduce blood pressure as efficiently as eating a low salt diet or cutting down on alcohol.
Michale McCulloch, MD, a psychiatrist in Portland, Or., studied the effects of pet ownership on the mentally ill. Most patients felt that their animals improved morale and gave them a feeling of support during their periods of illness. Pets distracted them from worry, made them feel more secure, stimulated physical activity, made them laugh, and helped them feel needed. A relationship with an animal required less effort than a relationship with another person. Dr. Leo Bustad, a renowned veterinary expert on the human/animal bond, and president of the Delta Society which promotes this connection, says, "A dog can be a wonderful cheerleader. It can buoy our spirits and help banish depressing thoughts. It can distract us from our worries, make us feel more secure and motivate us to exercise. Most importantly, pets are a great source of fun and laughter, and many studies have shown that humor is a powerful tool in reducing stress and promoting healing." Other studies show that there is a marked increase in social contact if disabled people have an animal with them. Pets act to break down barriers and give people a reason for starting a conversation without feeling self conscious. Occasionally, it has been found that animals have the capability of eliciting speech from people who had not been verbal. There are reports of older patients who had not spoken in years beginning to speak when interacting with an animal. Although initially they responded only to the animal, after awhile they also began to communicate with their therapist or caregiver. The introduction of the pet also seemed to have a positive effect on the attitudes of the staff in mental hospitals and institutions for the aged. The staff tended to become more optimistic and treated both patient and animal with more sensitivity.
Studies of the elderly have also shown that older pet owners visit the doctor less often and take less medication than non-pet owners. They are less likely to report feeling lonely, and, therefore, are less likely to visit their doctor for reassurance or to stave off loneliness. Dr. Judith Seigel, a Univ. of Cal. epidemiologist, found that among 1000 Medicare recipients, 40% of the elderly who owned dogs sought the services of a doctor far less often than those who had no animal companions. It did not matter what medical condition they were suffering from or how serious the medical condition was, those who had dogs for friends seemed dramatically less prone to seek medical care, especially the kind that really wasn't necessary. Dr. Siegel's research concluded that the company of a pet reduced the need for the elderly to seek the attention of the health-care system. Pets also provide senior citizens with a sense of security and a feeling of safety. They give them a feeling of being needed and provide older people with the opportunity to nurture, to touch and be touched, and to experience the joy and laughter associated with pets.
A study was done with the elderly to see what made them feel more connected to life and better about themselves. They were given one of three items: a TV set, a plant, or a bird. The people with the plants and the TV sets experienced more negative than positive changes in their feelings about themselves and their health over a 5 month period. The bird owners had more social contacts because of people stopping by to admire the birds when they were in a window, or on a front porch. The owners utilized their time to make toys and swings for their pets, making them feel more useful. And they became an important source of affection. People who had been neglecting themselves took the effort to take care of the birds and also spent more time taking better care of themselves. The birds stimulated their new owners to greater activity and became objects of their owner's affection.
The love between an owner and his/her pet is the most important health tonic we have. Pets do not care if we are old, incompetent, mentally ill, or unattractive. They love us unconditionally.
Pets help the elderly hold onto the world of reality, of care, of human toil and sacrifice, and of intense emotional relationships. Their self-concept as worthwhile individuals is restored and even enhanced when they find that the pet they have been caring for loves them in return. They help the elderly cope with the loss of a loved one or a change in their circumstance. The senior citizens were less likely to fall into the depression that strikes many elderly people when a friend, relative or loved one becomes seriously ill or dies. The friendship of their pet acts as a stress buffer in these situations. People look to them for solace.
Kastenbaum, in Death, Society and Human Experience, has noted that the elderly are more at risk for committing suicide. If a lack of connection to society and a feeling of worthlessness are contributing factors, I would suggest that those who own pets are less likely to commit suicide. Pet owners are too connected to the world of pets and activities through their pets to feel the same isolation and desperation that the aging non-pet owner might feel. Just a visit to their veterinarian can make an older person feel connected to the world. While in the waiting room they have the opportunity to converse with staff and other pet owners about their pets and their concerns. A sympathetic veterinarian listens to more than just the problems of the pet. Some veterinarians serve the role of clergy, therapist, and friend.
Patients in hospitals or nursing homes who have regular visits from their pets have shown to be more receptive to treatment. The need to care for their pet gives them reason to recover and the will to live. Animal programs in nursing homes increased self-care, activity and mobility, lifted the patient's spirits, and increased their cooperation with therapists. Some pet programs at nursing homes are credited with enabling patients to reach out beyond their own pain and isolation and start caring about the world around them again.
Pet owners are never at a loss for humor and laughter. The antics of unpredictable, energetic pets offer a daily dose of pleasure and fun. Laughter has been shown to be therapeutic. It can fight off illness and even promotes healing.
There have been reports of dogs saving their owners lives by detecting malignant melanomas. A woman with a mole on her leg was continually being sniffed by her dog. It brought the mole to her attention and she sought medical treatment, which probably saved her life. It seems that these melanomas develop a particular protein that gives off an odor that is detected by dogs. It has also been shown that dogs can anticipate and warn of acute health episodes in their owners, such as epileptic seizures and impending diabetic comas.
Other people perceive pet owners differently than nonpet-owners. In studies where subjects were shown pictures of people without a pet, these people were perceived as less trustworthy than the same people displayed with a pet. You may have noticed in recent TV ads, that advertisers have put this image to good use by utilizing dogs and horses in many of their ads.
Pets can have a positive influence on child development as well. Pet care can increase self-esteem & social competence. Children with pets are less likely to criminally offend later in life. They learn responsibility, gentle handling and bereavement. Pets have been used in the treatment of autistic children who have been shown to be willing to speak to a dog more readily than to a physician. Emotionally disturbed children who have been locked in walls of silence have been known to make a pet their confidant. The pet gave them an opportunity to practice expressing themselves, and later they were able to better express themselves to their therapists, making remarkable breakthroughs.
The use of animals in the penal system is interesting because it appears that the animals domesticate the men. Violence is reduced in prisons where pets are allowed. Even violent prisoners have been able to show affectionate care and nurturing toward a pet. People who have a high frustration level due to lack of verbal skills find it easier to communicate with pets because being inarticulate doesn't hinder the human-pet relationship.
I think it is clear that our relationship to our pets has untold medical, social, and psychological implications. Companion animals alleviate depression, solace the lonely, facilitate psychotherapy, socialize criminals, lower blood pressure, increase survivorship from myocardial infarction, and ease the social pain of aging in our society. Although there are some who feel that the expense, work, and physical ties of pet ownership are not worth the bother, for many, pet ownership is a kinship that cannot be denied. To the pet lover, pets are true miracle workers.
This quote from Jan Loney, Ph.D. sums up the companion animal's usefulness to the medical world:
"The staff that includes a canine therapist has at least one colleague who is without vanity and ambition, who has no "pet" theories, who is utterly unconcerned with role or status, who is free of intellectual pretensions, who does not fear emotion and who does not feel that he is being underpaid. In truth, an inspiration and a model for us all."
In recognition of our bond to our pets, there are many groups that have developed throughout the country and worldwide to foster the human/companion animal bond. I list here only a few of them: