Such a Good Dog!

You’ll never convince a pet-hater to snuggle a furry friend for health’s sake. But don’t kibble with the evidence: animals may really improve human health

If your dog could read and write, you might come home to find a note attached to the latest scene of destruction:

Human: Sorry I scratched the leather couch, chewed your Jimmy Choos, and made a mess on the rug. But I just read the latest research and it says I’m good for you. Stop kvetching and give me a hug!

You can find research to back what every pet owner intuitively knows – dogs and cats are good for your physical and emotional health. Not just the obvious four-legged heroes, like Roselle the Labrador retriever, who guided her blind owner, Michael Hingson, down 78 flights to emerge unscathed from the north tower of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the many animals trained to support people with health challenges. The average owner reaps rewards too.

Furry Friends: Pet therapy dogs Bandit and Cotton take five with Janice Rowley, president of the Pet Therapy Society of Alberta. Photo by Christy Dean

In July 2011, the American Psychological Association published a paper, called “Friends with Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, that said: “There are many positive consequences for everyday people who own pets …. Pets benefit the lives of owners, psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support.” The report summed up the findings of three studies to compare different samplings of pet owners against the pet-less. In all cases, those with Fluffy or Fido were happier, healthier and better adjusted than non-owners. “Pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more extroverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

The paper also put to rest the myth that says, “they love their pets because they don’t get along with people.” The studies showed that owners were very close to key persons in their lives, indicating that loving a dog doesn’t preclude loving your own species.

I’m not one who needs convincing. I give thanks daily for the therapeutic benefits of my three silly, snorting French bulldogs. And I know that volunteers at pet therapy associations throughout Alberta see the difference visiting animals make at hospitals, rehabilitation centres, seniors’ residences, mental-health day programs and hospices.

If I needed proof, seeing is believing so Edmonton’s Janice Rowley, president of the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta, invited me to observe their PAWSabilities program.

I watch Cotton, a Husky-retriever mass of fluff, Bandit, a serene border collie cross, and Daisy, the one-eyed rescue pug, connect with an appreciative group of mentally and physically challenged adults from a Winnifred Stewart Association day program. All three dogs sport the green scarves worn by PTSNA’s official therapy dogs.

An art session is underway. Cotton quickly positions himself beside a wheelchair where a woman with spina bifida struggles to glue sequins onto a picture frame. She repeatedly reaches down to Cotton for reassurance. Cotton knows he needs to stay where he is, so Bandit makes the rounds, nudging participants for pats, while compact Daisy seeks welcoming laps. “Daisy kissed me!” one previously silent man squeals.

But the star is Merlynn, a black twitchy-nosed lopped-eared rabbit. Solemnly sitting on his pink plush bed, Merlynn stays still as he’s passed around, accepting the stroking hands of strangers and stoically enduring tugs on his ears. “He knows he’s working when he’s on that bed,” says proud owner Wendy Watson. “He won’t jump off.”

Supported by the calm presence of the animals, the group focuses on their projects. The dogs move among participants without prompts from their owners. People don’t think about their limitations; they’re just enjoying the simple pleasure of time spent with accepting, affectionate animals. It’s quiet testimony to pet therapy power.

“Research shows measurable benefits of pet therapy,” agrees Sandra Johnston, executive director of the Pet Access League Society (PALS) in Calgary. “We see it first-hand. There are many little miracles – depressed seniors who talk to a dog after not having spoken for months, a patient considered immobile after a stroke turns to touch a pet, a dog’s visit lightens the mood of a sorrow-filled family in a hospice for a few moments.”

Jill Rhyson coordinates St. John Ambulance’s provincial therapy dog services program for Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer. She’s seen people light up around a tiny Chihuahua or a 100-pound Great Pyrenees. “There’s a different emotional connection beyond than we get from humans. People relax, let down their guard and forget their problems. Staff at various facilities see a difference after our visits.”

At the Chimo Project, pets work with certified health professionals in programs known as animal assisted therapy (AAT). “Interaction with animals can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, build trust, put people at ease and act as a social lubricant,” says program coordinator Danielle Clark. “Chimo uses those benefits from psychiatric to rehabilitation hospitals and from school settings to eldercare. Our research shows clients are also more motivated to attend and participate in therapy where animals are present.”

But back to you and your four-legged friends. In spite of his occasionally exasperating antics, your family pet does his part to keep you healthy. A 2011 study led by a Michigan State University researcher found people who own and walk dogs are 34 per cent more likely to meet U.S. physical activity benchmarks. You’re a cat-owner? They don’t need to be walked, but a 10-year study by researchers at the Stroke Institute in Minneapolis found owning a cat could reduce the risk of a heart attack by nearly one-third.

And American journalist Ben Williams once said: “There’s no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” Now if you’ll excuse me, I have three French bulldogs waiting for their walk.

More Licks and Wags

  • Old thinking: allergy-prone families should pass on pets.
  • New thinking: kids who grow up with furry friends are at less risk of allergies and asthma, according to Dr. James E. Gern, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 2004).
  • The Australian People and Pets Survey, documenting benefits of pet ownership in 1994. Among its findings: pet owners had fewer visits to doctors and were less likely to take medication for heart problems or high-blood pressure. The survey didn’t find that benefits increased for multiple-pet owners.
  • Pet owners are eight times more likely to be alive a year after suffering a heart attack according to a study by Dr. Erika Friedmann, published in The American Journal of Cardiology in 2003.

Shake a paw and find out more:
Pet Therapy Association of Northern Alberta

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