The Healing Power of Pets

Young woman snuggling with her dog.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.”
–Ben Williams

Everyone who has experienced the love of a pet knows intuitively what is becoming increasingly clear in the medical literature: pets are good for you. According to a growing number of scientific studies, owning a pet can help people survive a heart attack, counter depression, or even discourage divorce.

“The evidence favoring the health value of pets is so compelling,” says Larry Dossey, M.D., author of Reinventing Medicine, “that if pet therapy were a pill, we would not be able to manufacture it fast enough.”

Dr. James Rising, M.D., D.V.M., a physician and veterinarian in Wallace, Idaho, is well aware of the research supporting the healthful benefits of pet ownership. In fact, he goes so far as to “prescribe a dog” for some of his patients. “Then I’ll tell them to go to the animal shelter and have it filled,“ he says.

It has been well documented that dog owners are at a lower risk of developing heart disease. This may be due to lower systolic blood pressure, decreased cholesterol, and lower triglycerides — all are surprising dividends of dog ownership. In fact, petting a familiar dog lowers blood pressure almost immediately and produces a relaxation response in which breathing becomes more regular and muscle tension eases.

Much of the research showing the beneficial effects of pets has been done with dogs, and our canine friends do seem to have the most dramatic effects on human health. However, a number of studies have been conducted with cats, rabbits, turtles, or other animals.

What is so powerful about having a pet? “The secret is unconditional love,” says Dr. Rising. “Dogs relate to people in a way we can’t relate to one another. They’re nonjudgmental. They’re loyal And this kind of unfettered acceptance carries a certain healing power.”

Interest in the positive health benefits of pet ownership goes beyond the United States. In Europe, the topic has been studied by James Serpell, Ph.D., director of the Companion Animal Research Group in the Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine at University of Cambridge, UK. Serpell conducted a 10-month study investigating pet ownership in the same way that researchers study the effects of a new drug. His study looked at the impact on 71 adults of acquiring a new dog or cat. Twenty-six subjects without pets served as a comparison group. The pet-owner group reported a significant reduction in minor health problems after the first month with their animals and improvements in psychological well-being after the first six months. Dog owners sustained the improvements for the entire 10-month period of the study.

Sweet face a brown Labrador retriever.
Photo by Sebastian Vacca on Unsplash

While much of the medical literature focuses on the role of pet ownership in disease prevention, a number of studies have explored the benefit of animal companionship for people who live with a wide range of illnesses and disabilities.

One study explored the relationship between pet ownership, AIDS, and depression. The researchers found that people with AIDS who had pets reported less depression than those with AIDS who did not have pets. Other studies have uncovered positive effects of pet ownership on patients with Alzheimer’s disease, autism, mobility or hearing disabilities, and more.

A review of the research confirms what I already suspected based on my own experience. My dog, Zoey, is a beautiful 28-pound mutt that I adopted from a local animal shelter about two years ago. There’s nothing quite like her joyful excitement when I come home, or the feel of her body nestled against mine. She pokes at me with her paw when she wants some affection, making me think we should all be so direct and humble in expressing our needs and desires.

In fact, we humans can learn a lot from our pets as role models — they give a never-ending supply of unconditional love without expecting anything in return. They live in the moment. And they appreciate the smallest joys.

But the lessons our pets can teach us are even more essential for sufferers of chronic illness. Zoey knows how to rest. Since I consider myself somewhat challenged in that area, I often watch her with awe and humility.

She enjoys a walk every morning; then she cuddles up on the unmade bed to relax, always laying her head on the highest point in the pile of rumpled covers. When she experiences stress (a cat outside the window, a knock at the door, or my leaving on an errand), she is alert and focuses all her energy on the task at hand. But when the stressful moment has passed, she settles down in a carefully chosen spot, and she naps. When she gets up from a rest, she stretches before doing anything else. She understands the art of play — the joy of running after her ball, rolling on her back with her paws spread-eagle in the air, or a good game of tug-o-war. And after she plays, she rests some more.

Photo credit: Dreamstime

Those of us who live with chronic pain and fatigue know how difficult it can be to cope with illness because it affects all aspects of our lives. Many sufferers experience the loss of a job, a loss or change in relationships, or the inability to pursue interests and passions. Feelings of isolation and loneliness are common. But animals remain limited in their expectations of us and constant in their affection. Zoey gets excited about my smallest accomplishments — just my getting out of bed or walking into a room makes her jump for joy. Our pets can remind us to celebrate the most trivial of achievements and the smallest of joys.

More than half of U.S. households own a pet, and these millions of pet owners know that pets can be an unending source of love and joy. But they can also be a source of stress. Our beloved pets have been known to pee in unwelcome places, ignore our most earnest instructions, or leave dirt, hair, and other unwanted treasures behind.

Before I found Zoey, I wondered whether I would be able to handle taking care of a dog on my own, or whether I could walk her on my worst pain and fatigue days. But caring for an animal companion provides a sense of purpose and fulfillment, and for me it’s built my confidence about what I can do and the life I can live, despite my illness. Somehow I’ve always found the strength I need to take care of her, and the rewards have been well worth the effort.

Photo credit: Adobe Stock

If you think you may want to share your life with a new pet, it’s important to consider your needs and limitations, and to gather the information you need to determine the right match for you. Owning a pet is, no doubt, a big responsibility, and requires a certain amount of sacrifice and commitment. But for those who can make the necessary preparations, the benefits are many. A purring cat nestled on your lap or a joyful welcome from a tale-wagging dog can be one of them.

Diane Bourgeous, a dog owner and ME/CFS sufferer, writes, “Even napping is more pleasant now. I used to resent the need for naps. My mind would spin out of control thinking about what I could be accomplishing if I wasn’t napping. Not any more. Whether I nap on the couch or in my bed, I am comforted by the warm and fuzzy little body curled up next to mine.”

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