Pet Health Effects

3 Oct

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that conclusively affirms the numerous positive health effects attributed to human-animal interactions.  Interacting with a pet has been shown to decrease anxiety and to activate the sympathetic nervous system in humans.  Other studies have shown increased survival rates in individuals who had suffered a myocardial infarction (heart attack).  In an article published in Companion Animals in Human Health, Friedman and Thomas examined a group of coronary artery disease sufferers who had experienced a heart attack.  One year survival data conclusively found that those individuals who owned a dog were significantly less likely to have died in the one year duration of the study.  Given that most dog owners take their animal out for regular walks and hikes, it is not surprising that not only is the dog being exercised but so is the owner.  Interestingly, a positive benefit was not found for cat owners.  While one might initially suppose that owning a dog was related to differing physical characteristics of the patients than non-owners, such was not the case.  The dog owners were not found to be ‘healthier’ sick people at the beginning of the study and the positive benefit was found to be solely attributed to dog ownership.

In the April 2010 edition of the scientific journal Acta Medica Okayama, the authors investigated the effects of service dogs on health-related quality of life issues.   In the study, the researchers utilized a detailed survey that evaluated various health indicators of persons with significant disabilities such as spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis.  The experimental group lived with a therapy dog and those in the control group did not.  The results show that persons living with therapy animals have reduced physical and mental stresses and higher self esteem.

Susan Swartz writing for The Press Democrat interviewed health professionals who have found that dogs have become an essential part of their practice.  Dogs are now a key piece in fully engaging teens and war vets in counseling sessions where the animals act as conversation starters and safe surrogate companions.

Anxiety is a common emotion for persons entering a hospice.  For those that are mentally competent, they are fully aware that this is the last stop on the train of life.  Even those who hold devoutly religious beliefs, the knowledge that their life is rapidly coming to an end can induce fear and apprehension.  In my experience, the very act of entering a room with a palliative pet tends to normalize the environment, especially for a new resident.  The relief on the patients face and through their bodies is immediately evident and those that are comfortable with dogs very quickly engage with the animal before fully engaging with me, the dog’s leader who after all is just another stranger in this new strange environment.  The animal’s presence immediately elicits physical contact and calming repetitive stroking of the dog straight away precipitates a relaxed interaction.   Even for those patients with advanced dementia, palliative pets can generate positive responses.  In my experience physical contact with a dog can trigger some deep rooted reaction in an otherwise socially unresponsive dementia patient.  Whether this response is innate or memory-based is unclear but I have witnessed otherwise unengaged patients who have been physically challenging to care givers become calm and relaxed in the presence of and contact with a palliative pet.

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