In Sickness and in Health, Animals Really Are Man’s Best Friend

Pets have long been part of the American household. We’ve valued their companionship and their protection. But numerous studies have shown that animals help to keep us physically and emotionally healthy, help us heal, and provide life-enhancing and life-saving assistance. Pets have also been shown to foster independence, decrease loneliness and stress, and improve our mood! How is this so?

Posted on | Donna Cardillo, RN, MA | Comments ()

Pets have long been part of the American household. We’ve valued their companionship and their protection. But numerous studies have shown that animals help to keep us physically and emotionally healthy, help us heal, and provide life-enhancing and life-saving assistance. Pets have also been shown to foster independence, decrease loneliness and stress, and improve our mood! How is this so?

Caring for a pet can give some people a sense of being needed and being loved. It can give those who are elderly, sick, disabled or depressed a reason to live. Walking a dog can have physical and psychological benefits and provide opportunities for socializing, exercise and getting outdoors. Taking care of pets helps to take the focus off of the owner’s problems and concerns. And we’re not just talking dogs and cats here. It can be a hamster, bird, horse, pig or ferret. Even watching fish in an aquarium can be calming and distracting from life’s challenges.

Health Benefits

Studies have shown that caring for a pet can keep blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol down. It can also contribute to better overall health by boosting the immune system and reducing stress which is well known to be a major contributing factor to heart disease and other ailments. Specially trained dogs have even been known to “sniff” illness such as cancer before the person or their care provider are aware of a problem. 

Pet-assisted Therapy

If you don’t or can’t have an animal of your own, pet therapy is an alternative. This can be as simple as a trained person with a therapy animal coming to your residence (home or health-care facility) and allowing you time to interact with the animal. There are also special stables that offer “hippotherapy,” where children and adults are assisted in riding and caring for horses for movement/muscle therapy, stress relief, and development of cognitive functions. Pet therapy has been very effective in working with abused children and adults, elderly and hospitalized individuals, children with autism, adults with Alzheimer’s, people with multiple sclerosis and so on.

Assistive or Service Pets

Most of us are familiar with seeing-eye dogs for the blind. But there are also specially trained animals (dogs, monkeys and others) that assist those with physical and mental disabilities in everything from fetching dropped objects, preventing someone from falling out of a wheelchair by pushing him/her back up, alerting a hearing impaired person to an alarm and so much more.

These assistive pets are not only the eyes, ears, and hands of a disabled person, but they can also detect subtle changes in behavior, body movement or odors signaling an upcoming seizure, high or low blood sugar levels, migraines, and high blood pressure up to 45 minutes before the event occurs. In so doing, they can forewarn their owner or another person in order to take necessary precautions and avert serious harm.  

Practical Aspects to Consider

If you’re looking to acquire a pet, call a local animal shelter.

If you’d like to have a pet but can’t take care of it, there are people who will walk, feed, groom, and clean up after your dog or other animal for a nominal amount of money. You may even be able to find a volunteer to do that for you, especially if you or your loved one is elderly, sick or disabled.

If having a pet is not possible or practical for you, research pet therapy in your area and make a phone call. Many of these services are available for free. Ask at your local animal shelter, veterinarian office, hospital or nursing home to find this service in your area.

If you think you may be a candidate for an assistive pet, contact a related social service agency such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for a referral or more information.

You can also do an Internet search.

Whether you have a pet or not, spending time with animals can improve your quality of life … and your health.

Blog written by Donna Cardillo, RN, MA
Donna Cardillo is a registered nurse with more than 30 years of diverse health-care experience. Donna is known as “Dear...