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Delaware Pet Therapy: How Our Pets Can Help Us Be Happier and More Healthy

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While many pet owners are sure their companions help them lead healthier lives, few have as compelling a story as Alexis Strauss. The Newark woman credits “Cammie,” her golden retriever, with saving her life.

Last year, Strauss, who has a history of mental health issues, was in the throes of a depression so deep that suicide seemed like the only answer. But her golden retriever, Cammie, would have nothing of it. Sensing that her owner was in trouble, the animal got into bed with her, draping herself over her and giving her the strength to pull through.

It was because of her that I didn’t hurt myself and ended up having complete healing,” says the 24-year-old. “It wasn’t just the fact of having the responsibility to take care of her, she was like medicine really. She knew how to show affection and how to calm me down so I could function.”

And Cammie continues to have a positive impact on Strauss’ health. “She helps me establish healthy routines,” Strauss says. “I know she’s going to wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning so I make sure I get my 8 hours of sleep and exercise because I care about her well-being.”

We all know that having a pet can bring joy to our lives. But a pet can do more than just fetch slippers or curl up in your lap. Numerous scientific studies show that pets can improve human health, helping us live longer and happier lives.

“This isn’t a one-size-fits all magic bullet but for those who do like pets, it can be highly beneficial,” says Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine at Columbia.

One of those benefits is exercise. We all know that we should exercise more but finding the motivation can be a real challenge. A dog provides a powerful incentive to get out and walk. Indeed, people who have dogs are more likely to meet the recommended 30 minutes of daily physical activity, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Having a furry friend can also improve your mood and happier people are often healthier people. It’s hard to stay down-in-the-dumps when an adorable puppy licks your face or a purring kitty brushes up against your leg. The reason? “Neuroendocrine hormones are released when we interact with our pets,” says Johnson. “They automatically signal our brain to help us feel happier and nurtured.”

Scott Siegel, a psychologist at Christiana Care, says he is more social because of his dog. Photo by Ron DubickPets have also proven to be better than drugs at controlling spikes in blood pressure due to tension and stressful events. Research at the State University of New York at Buffalo found that the companionship of a cherished pet helped keep participants’ blood pressures and heart rates in check even while they performed stressful tasks.

Pets are also a great “social lubricant,” providing many opportunities for their owners to meet and interact with other people. And people with adequate or high social relationships were found to have a 50 percent higher survival rate than their friendless counterparts, according to a recent study at Brigham Young University.

“Because I have my dog I’ve gotten into more conversations with my neighbors or people at the park,” says Scott D. Siegel, Ph.D., a psychologist at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center. “They’re sort of, ‘If this dog says he’s OK, he must be trustworthy.’”

Pets are especially helpful in increasing the health and happiness of seniors. In addition to providing companionship, having a pet can help seniors concentrate on something other than the challenges they may be facing in their daily lives. This respite can have a major impact on their general health and well-being. A 1990 UCLA study, for example, reported that elderly people who owned a pet required fewer doctor visits.

“I used to take medicine for being a ‘Nervous Nellie,’ but not any longer,” says Mary McCrary, 67 of Wilmington, who adopted Sonny last year through the Delaware Humane Association’s Pets for the Elderly Program. “I don’t need to take blood pressure medicine. I couldn’t live without this pet. For the 7 ½ pounds that he is, he’s amazing.”

There have also been instances when the family canine knew about a pregnancy long before the mother-to-be found out. Barbara Bernard Murray recalls the time her husband’s great dane—who usually ignored her—suddenly started following her around for no apparent reason. “It was like he was glued to the back of my legs,” says the 68-year-old from Pike Creek. “A month later, I find out I’m pregnant.”

Dogs have also been known to sniff out cancer cells, sense changes in the blood-sugar levels of diabetics, and react to and warn others when their epileptic owners were having or about to have a seizure.

Health care providers are starting to realize the importance of the animal-human bond in their daily work. Horseback riding is helping amputees get “back in the saddle.” Counselors have introduced dogs into therapy sessions and doctors have observed improvements in stroke patients who have played catch with golden retrievers.

Many hospitals have pet therapy programs in place and a growing number are allowing pets to visit owners in the hospital.

“These animal therapies are as good as—or in some cases—better than conventional medical therapies,” says James Serpell, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

Cancer patients can receive substantial benefits from the complementary treatment of animal-assisted therapy during chemotherapy. Emotions and feelings are an important part of dealing with cancer.

“A lot of time they’re pretty much told what therapy they’re going to get,” says Cindy Waddington, clinical nurse specialist at Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center. “We like to give them choices in the way they learn how to cope and manage this experience.”

Bernard Murray agrees. “When you’re in the system like that and you’re going from doctor to doctor, you feel like you ought to have a number on your chest, so you can get kind of numb to things,” says the retired marketing professional who underwent treatment for breast cancer five years ago. “So to have those dogs come in and light up your life all of a sudden was just amazing.”

And it’s not just patients who benefit from the visits. It’s a stress-buster for the staff as well and that can translate into better patient care.

“It lightens the mood when they’re here,” says Meghan Holland, nurse manager of the cardiac and vascular services intensive-care unit at Kent General Hospital in Dover. “They take everybody’s mind off the critical care part of it.” 

Psychologists have achieved breakthroughs with traumatized patients by incorporating dogs into the sessions. Siegel remembers a breast cancer patient he once had at the Graham Center who was reluctant to talk about a sexual assault—until she met his therapy dog, Buddy.

“I joked that he was going to put me out of business,” Siegel says. “He earned that trust in one minute. I had to take several months to get to that level.”

Lynne Robinson, executive director and founder of PAWS for People, observed a similar phenomenon with a patient undergoing drug rehabilitation.

“This was a big guy with the chains and the black leather,” she recalls, “and he held this puppy like a baby, talked to it like a baby and said, ‘It’s the only time I can show my true feelings.’”

Indeed, pets can be there for us in ways that people often can’t. They can enjoy comfortable silences and keep confidences.

“The problem with people is to some extent we’re in competition or in conflict with them,” says Serpell. “I’m in conflict with my children even though I love them dearly, but I don’t have that issue with my dog.”

Alan Burkhard knows well how the unconditional love and support of a pet can ease the loneliness and isolation brought on by a chronic disorder. Burkhard had been suffering with spinal stenosis when his wife decided to give him a golden retriever puppy 12 years ago.

Sadie, he says, devoted her life to him. “When you have chronic pain, it raises a lot of emotions: anger, fear, abandonment,” says the 68-year-old entrepreneur from Chesapeake City, Md., who also underwent treatment for thyroid cancer in 2005.

“Space is a significant issue. With a human, it’s like an elephant coming into a room. Dogs don’t take up space, they don’t have expectations.”
Much of the research done on animal-assisted therapy has focused on dogs but cat owners can benefit as well.

“We definitely need to be looking at ways to encourage people to engage in vigorous play with their cats,” says Johnson, co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound.” “Many cats walk on leashes and they can certainly learn to do this.”

Experts are not recommending that everyone rush out and get a pet in the hope of adding a few extra years to their lives.

“If your living circumstances are not suitable a pet is going to be miserable and a miserable pet is going to have behavioral problems,” says Serpell. “Those behavioral problems are going to cause you stress and what you might finish up with is an animal that kills you quicker than one that helps protect you.” 

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