The Pet Cure
Gettin’ that furry love can make you both happy and healthy.
Forget milk. Got pets? Not only can taking your dog for a walk help build strong bones, a cuddly companion can make it easier for you to feel less lonely, depressed and stressed. When life seems just too hard to take, a pair of loving puppy eyes can make all the difference.
The “pet prescription” is proving its worth in studies time and time again. At the University of Buffalo, for example, stockbrokers with hypertension saw their blood pressure readings drop when a dog or cat was by their side. Another study at the university showed that dog-owning caregivers tending to brain-injured spouses experienced only 20% of the rise in blood pressure and heart rate seen among caregivers without canines. Meanwhile, UCLA researchers found that animals raised low self-esteem among patients at Los Angeles-area hospitals, while relaxing in the presence of dogs enhanced communication among geriatric patients and their families.
“Human-animal relationships provide benefits that far exceed the physical,” says Robin Hamlisch, LCSW, director of Cornell Companions at The College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. Like other pet visitation programs, Cornell Companions brings volunteers and their pets to area hospitals, nursing homes, Alzheimer’s units, schools for emotionally and developmentally disabled children, and facilities for teenagers who would otherwise be in prison. In addition to cats and dogs, the Cornell companions also include white rats, chinchillas, rabbits and hamsters—even llamas and a camel.
“We focus on emotional issues. Some of the kids have had a lot of trauma in their lives and animals are the only ones they really bond with,” explains Hamlisch, who warmly recalls the very first time a non-verbal four-year-old spoke—to a dog. “A lot of the kids don’t like touch, yet the only interaction they’ll tolerate is with animals. Even children who don’t trust dogs at first end up being the most nurturing towards the animals. It really teaches trust and bonding skills.”
For individuals with physical handicaps, an animal often rouses them to get up and about. “The animals are a motivating factor in improving motor skills, since it gets people moving across a room to touch an animal,” notes Hamlisch.
Paging Dr. Dog
Before rushing out to get an animal, consider this: Pets are not for everyone. Don’t forget that there are walks in the rain, daily feedings, veterinary visits, shedding and the inevitable poop dilemma. Lifestyle determines whether the joys of having a pet outweigh the burdens.
If you do decide to take in a furry friend, consider adopting from your local shelter. Rescued animals, grateful to have a “forever” home, make great companions. If you’re not sure, try volunteering at a shelter or ASPCA, fostering pets on a temporary basis or doing some pet-sitting. That way, you can still reap the health benefits of a pet, but with only part-time responsibility. After all, for most of us, a doggy kiss or kitty purr is simply more satisfying than a glass of milk any time of day.