Ask The Doctor

Animal Companions Bring Joy — and Health Benefits

Dear Dr. Garner,
My father, who is 85, has had a dramatic transformation during the past few years. I tie it directly to a dog he adopted from a local shelter.
I have noticed that he is more youthful, has a better outlook on life and socializes much more than before the dog. I know that other readers might have elderly parents, and I just want to suggest they consider adopting a pet for them.  
Also, are there any scientific studies showing that a pet can benefit a person’s health?
Barking about Butch, the Canine Boxer from Boerum Hill

Dear Barking,
There absolutely are correlations between pets and benefits they can bring to our health.
Here are some examples:
• Men with a pet are six times more likely to be alive six months after a heart attack than those without a pet.
• Pets help us to fight depression. AIDS patients are much less likely to experience depression than those without pets.  Elderly are less likely to be depressed with a pet, and better able to tolerate lack of interaction with other humans.
• Children who have a dog growing up have more self-confidence as college students and adjust more easily to college.
• Studies done on stockbrokers demonstrate significant benefit in blood pressure reduction when they adopted a cat or dog.  In some cases, the ability to sustain low blood pressure was more effective from interaction with a pet than with medication.
• Children growing up in a home with pets, cats or dogs, have less allergies, asthma and eczema.  It seems that the animal helps the immune system develop more efficiently.
• Patients with Alzheimer’s disease have fewer anxiety attacks and panic disorders when allowed to have a dog nearby.
• Women between the ages of 50-60 recover faster from breast cancer treatment if they have a pet.
• A pet actually beats an apple a day in keeping the doctor away.  Pet owners made 15-20% fewer annual visits to the doctor than non-pet owners.
Pets reduce stress and as a result, humans enjoy the following benefits:
There is a reduction in stress hormones, which lowers the blood pressure.
Plaques in the arteries decrease.
There is a decrease in blood sugar, and a decrease in cholesterol levels.
Insulin begins to work more efficiently.
Endorphins, or the feel-good hormones of the brain, increase with pet ownership.
In addition to the above facts that have been noted in major medical studies, pets are used as therapy in hospitals.
At New York Methodist Hospital, for example, there is a therapy dog, who visits children’s wards, nursing homes, and rehabilitation areas of the hospital.  The companionship of the dog enable patients to forget about their medical problems for a while. Some stroke patients actually get physical benefits by using their muscles to pet the dogs. Elderly patients become more social and frequently can be heard telling stories of pets they owned, and recollecting memories of their childhood and early family life.
As with any medical therapy, one must observe certain precautions.
• Frequent hand washing is important.
• Remember to disinfect the sink or bathtub, if you wash the animal there.
• Dogs can bring pollen and other allergy-producing substances into the house.  Be careful to wash the animal frequently during allergy season.
• Choose the right pet. If you are allergic to dogs and cats, perhaps a bird, snake or lizard is a good option. If there are small children in the household, snakes and lizards are not a good choice as they can spread very serious infections.
• Wear gloves while cleaning out the animal’s cage.
• Don’t let a dog drink out of the toilet bowl — a kiss from the dog may make you sick.
• Never take in a wild animal as pet.
• Finally, never feed your pet raw meat or chocolate — it can make the dog or cat very sick.
As you see, pets are remarkable animals, and many people have begun to call them “Companion Animals.”
I highly suggest people of all ages consider adopting a pet. It can bring years of joy, and even make your health better to boot.
Until next week, be well.[hr]
Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.

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