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Pets prove to be good for your health

by Arden Moore
(from Prevention.com)
Eight years ago, Charlene Bromley, 67, relied on a wheelchair or a cane for mobility. Diagnosed with lung cancer while living with multiple sclerosis, the Cedar Rapids, IA, woman felt devastated and depressed.

Then Reggie, a black miniature poodle, entered her life. Today, Bromley is winning her battle with cancer, walks up to 5 miles a day with her dog, and does yoga. She credits Reggie with helping her adopt a healthier lifestyle and attitude.

"Reggie always puts me in a good mood after chemotherapy," she says. "I really feel I'm a medical miracle, and I give credit for these extra years, in part, to my dog. He motivated me to exercise, and his happy greetings always lift my spirits."

Bromley's doctor, Edward Creagan, MD, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, agrees. "Many times, the family pet can motivate a patient to give her best effort to deal with a serious illness such as cancer," says Dr. Creagan. "About 5 years ago, I began asking my patients about their pets, and it was amazing to see the smiles illuminate their faces. Today, I write down the name of pets whenever I take a medical history."

Try a Pet Prescription
Experts such as Dr. Creagan are now validating what pet owners have long believed: Man's best friend may also be man's best medicine.

"About 65 percent of American households have pets, but we're just tapping into the power they possess in helping us to heal emotionally, physically, and mentally," says Marty Becker, DVM, a veterinarian from Boners Ferry, ID, who champions the people/animal bond. "We're learning of pets that sniff out cancers undetectable to doctors, as well as pets that sense when their owner is about to have a heart attack, seizure, or panic attack."

For his book, The Healing Power of Pets (Hyperion, 2002), Dr. Becker traveled across the US conducting more than 350 interviews with physicians, scientists, and other experts from the Mayo Clinic, the National Institutes of Health, and Harvard University's School of Medicine about the science behind a companion animal's ability to detect, treat, and cure a host of diseases and conditions.

Dr. Becker's Findings
  • Half of a group of New York City stockbrokers on medication for high blood pressure no longer needed meds within a couple of months of adopting a pet.
  • Senior dog-owners at a mobile home park in Davis, CA, took twice as many daily walks and felt healthier than neighbors who did not own or walk dogs.
  • A dermatologist in Tallahassee, FL, discovered that a schnauzer named George is capable of sniffing out hard-to-spot melanomas in some of his patients.

    Science of Comfort
    Companion animals may directly benefit their owner's body chemicals, explains Rebecca Johnson, PhD, associate director for research at the Center of the Study of Animal Wellness and a professor of gerontology nursing at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

    In an ongoing study, Dr. Johnson and her colleagues are taking blood samples of participants after they spend 30 minutes interacting with their own dogs, dogs unknown to them, and robot dogs. Preliminary results show that the interaction with one's pet raises levels of the body's "good" chemicals such as oxytocin (believed to cause feelings of happiness) and prolactin (associated with feelings of attachment). "We're trying to show scientifically that there is a biological basis for what we've felt intuitively. People can be healthier by interacting positively and sharing their life with their pets," says Dr. Johnson.

    Physicians such as Dr. Creagan are now recommending "pet prescriptions" to some patients who live alone and are in need of companionship. The arrival of these dogs, cats, or other pets contributes to fewer physician visits and the lowering of blood pressure and cholesterol levels in some people. "I'm very hopeful that this is the beginning of something big, a multidisciplinary approach to healing that includes the family pet," says Dr. Creagan. "We need to tap into the healing power of fur, fins, and feathers."

    Harness Your Pet's Healing Powers
    So how can your pet help you heal? Dr. Becker offers these tips.

  • Spend more time looking at, listening to, touching, and talking with your pet each day to help release feel-good, nurturing, natural biochemicals in you.
  • Engage in purposeful play, such as hiding treats around the house, teaching your pet a new trick, or enrolling him in an agility class. You'll discover that you will let go of stress, lower your blood pressure, breathe more deeply, and laugh more.
  • Use your dog as your workout buddy by taking long walks. This fun way to exercise helps keep you at a healthy weight, reducing your risk for developing conditions such as diabetes and heart problems.