• Stephen Birchard

The Healing Power of Pets: New research confirms dogs and cats help us live healthier, longer lives.

Updated: Aug 28

A cat named Wally came into my life quite by chance. He was found on the side of the road in a small town in Ohio, battered and dirty from unknown trauma. A “good Samaritan” brought him to the clinic at the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine, and he was examined and treated by the emergency service. Once his condition stabilized, he was admitted to the hospital while the search for his owner commenced in earnest. With each day he appeared to recover from his ordeal, but no owner was located. If the search came up empty, he would be transferred to the humane society where his future would be in question. If no one adopted him, he would be euthanized.


For the time being, Wally was kept in a cage in the treatment area. In my frequent walks from my office to the surgery rooms, I would pass his cage. I couldn’t help but notice him. He was a handsome and affectionate black and white cat who wore a tuxedo every day regardless of the occasion. When I started opening the cage door so that he could come to me for petting and head scratching, well, I think you know what happened. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Stephen Birchard and cat Wally
Wally and me

Wally and I were together for 11 years. Because of a number of major life events, it was a turbulent and unstable time for me. There were multiple moves to different cities, changes in jobs, a divorce, and sudden loss of my mother with whom I was very close. There were times when I felt stressed, sad, even lonely. Wally’s companionship provided comfort, friendship, and purpose to my chaotic world. He never questioned my actions or decisions; he trusted me, when many others did not. When I adopted him, we rescued each other.


My history with Wally gives us a glimpse of something researchers have known for years: dogs and cats are good for us, physically and mentally. They lower our blood pressure, reduce our heart rate, and increase the oxygen in our blood. They make us more active, less anxious, less depressed and less lonely.


The Benefits of Pets


This blog article is about the wonderful relationship between us and our pets. Pictures of friends and colleagues with their dogs and cats are scattered about within these paragraphs. As they pose for the pictures, notice the expressions on their faces; they show happiness, comfort, and love. Quite simply, the pictures show that their animal friends are nurturing their soul. Our pets truly are our best friends, and a recent study finds they can even save our life.

Linda, her son Kurt, and their dog Kitty

In the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, Dr. Caroline K. Kramer and her co-authors published the results of an analysis of 3.8 million people who were studied for an average of 10 years. They found that dog ownership resulted in a 24% reduction in risk of death during the study period, compared to non-ownership. The reduction in death rate was even more profound in people who had a prior coronary event. Dr. Kramer concluded from the study that “dog ownership as a lifestyle intervention may offer significant health benefits, particularly in populations at high-risk for cardiovascular death.”


In their book: “The Miracle of Touch” published by the Animal Welfare Institute, Viktor and Annie Reinhardt review the extensive body of evidence supporting the positive effect of animals on people. Coincidentally, there is also evidence that people can have an equally beneficial effect on animals. In biology this is called mutualism; when 1 species of animal interacts with another and both are benefited. In the business world it’s called a “win-win”.

Kim and her dog Vera

In a recent tv advertisement, a cancer patient in the hospital is about to receive her next dose of chemotherapy. This is not just any patient; it’s a little girl dressed in her hospital gown and lying in a bed surrounded by monitoring devices and other medical instruments. She dreads the treatment. She wears a long face and looks tired and defeated. The nurse, sensing the girl’s sadness, says, “We’re going to try something different today.”


A dog appears in her room. It’s a big furry mixed breed dog with kind eyes and a wagging tail. He immediately goes to her in bed and puts his head near her face. She lights up, and begins petting the dog, smiling and talking to him. He is wagging his tail and enjoying her touch. A “different” experience indeed.


A woman and her dog
Jesse and her dog Freya

Like this little girl with cancer in the Pedigree dog food commercial, patients receiving either chemotherapy or radiation therapy benefit from having a dog present during treatment compared to those who do not. With dogs present, patients have better circulation, less feelings of depression, and an overall increase in emotional well-being even while suffering the effects of their cancer or its treatment.


People with mental illness also find therapeutic benefit from dogs. Using salivary cortisol levels as a measurement of stress, patients with chronic schizophrenia showed significant decreases in this parameter when dogs were present during therapy sessions. Another study found that, in a group of people grieving the loss of their spouse, the ones who owned a dog or cat had significantly fewer symptoms of distress. The pets gave them companionship. They had a reason to continue their daily routines and a safe outlet for their emotions.

Jerry and his cat Gizmo

In some situations, dogs are actually preferred to a human for comfort and companionship. Dogs do not require us to maintain a conversation and they are completely non-judgmental. Senior citizens visited by a friendly person showed no change in their blood pressure during the visit, but when the same person came with a dog, their blood pressures significantly decreased. Therapists have also found that during group treatment sessions having a dog present resulted in significantly less symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.


The Magic of Petting

Ben with his cat Marmalade

Dogs and cats love to be petted, and we love to do it. It’s good for them and us. Research in both animals and humans find that petting results in a boost of the immune system. In a study of 139 shelter cats, half were gently petted every day, the other half were not. The petted cats had a significantly lower incidence of respiratory disease and higher levels of antibodies in their bloodstream. An experimental study in college students assessed changes in their serum antibody levels associated with petting a dog for 18 minutes. Those who petted a live dog had significantly higher IgA antibody concentrations that those who petted a stuffed animal replica similar in size, shape, and texture.


Pat also with Marmalade

The studies showing the benefits of dogs, cats, and other companion animals are almost too numerous to count. In this time of a global pandemic and political and social discord, stress levels are high for everyone. Our pets are helping us get through it. Give them an extra treat, hug, or long walk today to say thank you.


Have pets helped you during a tough time? Did they comfort you during emotionally stressful events or medical challenges, or are they helping you cope with today’s chaotic world? In the Comments box below this article, tell us a story about you and your furry friend. We’d love to know more about your own experiences with your 4-legged family members.


Women with dogs at the beach
Amy and Julie with their dogs Laylah and Manny

References


Kramer CK, Mehmood S, Suen RS. Dog Ownership and Survival: A systematic review and meta-analysis. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.119.005554


Reinhardt, Viktor and Annie. The Magic of Touch: Healing effects of animal touch and animal presence. (Most of the studies I mention in this blog were cited in this publication) https://awionline.org/store/catalog/animal-welfare-publications/general-literature-animals-laboratories-humane-education



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