Pets soothe the spirit, strengthen the heart

Photo courtesy Heidi Rae Harris

Elise Gordon Rasmussen has a full-time job, a sideline business and a family. But stress melts away when the Silver Spring resident is greeted by her four cats.

The bond between humans and animals is ancient. As reported in American Scholar in November 2011, a burial site discovered in Israel contains the 12,000-year-old bones of an elderly human.

The skeleton’s left hand embraces, with unmistakable affection, the bones of a puppy.

Rasmussen’s observation that pets bring physical and emotional benefits is supported by research. An article in the April 2012 issue of the American Journal of Cardiology, for example, states that pet ownership is associated with reduced heart disease.

Research seems to indicate, said Dr. Jay Mazel of Silver Spring, a cardiologist with MedStar Cardiology Associates, that pets are among the lifestyle measures that diminish stress and anxiety, which in turn may lead to a reduction in cardiovascular events.

“There are studies that suggest that pets, especially dogs, may offer protection from cardiovascular disease by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides,” said Mazel.

Moreover, noted Dr. Mark Katz, a semiretired Kemp Mill veterinarian who founded Kindness Animal Hospital, five-year survival rates after a heart attack or stroke are much higher among the pet-owning population.

An extra health boon is the fact that dogs must be walked—which assists pet owners to achieve recommended levels of physical activity.

“Dogs are a motivator for exercise and can help control obesity,” said Katz.

Then there’s the camaraderie one may find when walking a dog or just “talking pets” with others who share the love. Loneliness may be lower among pet owners because of the sense of purpose and companionship in taking care of an animal.

Fewer doctors’ visits are noted among seniors with pets, as older people may make appointments to combat loneliness, Katz said.

On the other end of the age spectrum, having pets is a “good way to teach children love and responsibility,” noted Dahlia Topolosky, a licensed psychologist in Rockville. “Studies demonstrate that pet owners are in better emotional health, as indicated by tendencies toward greater self-esteem, sense of belonging and meaning.”

Even children with sensory issues, who have a hard time integrating sensory input, benefit from having and caressing animals, Topolosky added.

Although many people think furry when they think pet, other animals provide physical and psychological benefits. “You will notice beautiful fish tanks at many doctors’ offices—especially dental offices,” said Katz.  “This has a very calming effect on patients while awaiting their visits.”

That dogs can serve as eyes for the blind has been known for centuries. More recent is the training of service dogs to alert owners to medical issues, such as an epileptic seizure; to help calm veterans affected by post-traumatic stress; and to retrieve keys and perform other tasks for the physically disabled.

Also more recent is animal-assisted therapy — treatment to improve a person’s physical, cognitive, emotional, or social health.

Though dogs are most commonly used in AAT, unexpected pets may qualify.
While buying bird food for her parrot, longtime animal fan Heidi Rae Harris of North Bethesda saw and “fell in love” with a rabbit and added him to her home.

Inspired by an article about therapy rabbits, she worked with an organization called Pet Therapy Unlimited to have Humphrey, the rabbit, certified. The two then visited pediatric patients in the Montgomery Hospice.

After Humphrey’s passing, Harris obtained another rabbit, Zenkei; she is training the rabbit for certification.

The National Institutes of Health has sponsored a canine assisted-animal-therapy program since 1989.

Once a week, therapy dogs, accompanied by their owners, visit patients with life-threatening illnesses, said Dr. Ann Berger, chief of pain and palliative care at NIH’s Clinical Center. Patients who are “imminently dying“ are permitted visits from their own pets.

“Animal-assisted therapy makes a huge difference for a lot of patients,” said Berger. “It’s part of a larger program to normalize life for and add to the quality of life of patients.”

Berger and a colleague, Dr. Sandra Barker, conducted a study to explore how animal-assisted therapy relieves distress in hospitalized cancer patients coping with pain. Until the research is published, Berger isn’t free to share details, but will say, “There are certainly benefits.”

Guinea pigs living in the NIH main playroom have been considered part of animal-assisted therapy since 1986. They visit with patients and family members in the playroom, but recreation therapists also take the guinea pigs for bedside visits in the Clinical Center.

There’s no question animals like to be petted and caressed. But the pleasure is mutual. Stroking a pet is relaxing, and creates a bond between human and animal as strong as the one the fossils demonstrated.

“A purring, happy cat is very calming,” said Rasmussen of her brood. “You can’t be upset around them.”

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