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Healthy Pets, Healthy People

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by Audrey Thomasson

Most of us can’t imagine life without our pets.

Who doesn’t love to see a tail at full-throttle as we open the door—that unabashed greeting our dogs give us whether we were gone a week or a minute? Or those big brown eyes gazing up with complete adoration and devotion even on our grumpiest days? 

It’s a fact that pets, especially dogs, offer their “people” many health benefits. Now scientists say they may help us even more than once thought—they trigger our “feel good” hormones.

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Kindergarten student Jaden Jones reads to German shepherd, Annabelle at Lancaster Primary School.

Numerous studies have shown that dogs can help lower blood pressure, ease the loneliness of the elderly in nursing homes and help children overcome allergies. But a study by Missouri University’s College of Veterinary Medicine suggests hormonal changes occur when humans and dogs interact.

They discovered a few minutes of stroking pets not only triggers “feel good” hormones like serotonin, it results in decreased levels of the primary stress hormone cortisol, which alleviates depression and certain stress disorders.

While researchers don’t advise people to throw away their medication and get a pet, they believe animal therapy could be used as an adjunct to treatment.

The notion that pets could influence people’s hormone levels is a very powerful thing, said the head of the study, Dr. Rebecca Johnson. She wondered if our pets could really mediate hormone levels to the point of benefiting people under emotional stress.

“I see it every single day. Every single day,” said Dr. Adine Jones, veterinarian at Countryside Animal Hospital in Saluda. “There has to be an endorphin released when you touch your animal. Pets are a comfort. They can be our entertainment. They are certainly family for most of us. And they give us unconditional love. This world would be an awful place without them.”

Therapy for the elderly

It’s not just dogs that are being studied for their therapeutic power. A study from Purdue University found people with Alzheimer’s disease often suffer from weight-loss problems because they can’t focus long enough to eat. But when they are seated in front of aquariums with brightly colored fish, patients were able to pay attention long enough to eat their meals.

When Sue Ann Bangle of Lancaster takes her therapy dog, Little Girl, to visit the elderly in assisted living facilities, she sees the power of comfort and companionship they bring to people suffering from depression and loss. She remembers one patient in her 90s who was deeply depressed because she’d just lost her brother. The woman sat quietly for an hour stroking the dog. Little Girl stayed at her side offering constant comfort to ease her pain.

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Kilmarnock Wastewater Treatment Plant chief operator Pat Chenoweth takes her two English springer spaniels, Duke and Sammy, to work every day. “They keep me company,” she said.

When there is a dog in the house, seniors are more likely to take a stroll through their neighborhood, walking Fido on a leash and getting the exercise needed to stay healthy and strong. As a faithful companion, dogs also bring a sense of security because their sense of smell, hearing and eyesight is much more efficient and more alert to intruders than humans.

However, experts warn to pick your pet wisely. Size, temperament, and grooming should all be factors to consider. Also, don’t overlook adopting an older pet and mixed breeds. Puppies, like babies, can be overwhelming for the elderly. Shelters and rescue groups are happy to discuss each animal’s requirements.

Kids and pets

One therapy dog program that is as popular with the dogs as it is with kids, is the read-a-book-to-a-dog program. Kindergartners and first graders at Lancaster Primary School read to pooches every Friday morning. LPS bookkeeper, Melanie Hathaway, says it encourages youngsters and gives them confidence because the dogs don’t pass judgement if the kids make a mistake.

The dogs’ enthusiasm is as apparent as the kids’. German shepherd, Annabelle, could hardly wait to get out of the car and into the school to visit ‘her’ kids.

Date magnets

Dog lovers will not be surprised to hear that studies also prove walking a dog contributes to a person’s weight loss. As walking companions, they can help improve our sense of well-being and be a catalyst for social interaction with other people that can lead to new friendships—and maybe even a love connection. 

posted 02.25.2011

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