Researcher: Pets Keep People Healthy

A golden retriever called Janie waltzed down the hall of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles awhile back and into the room of a patient who had refused to talk with anyone for several weeks. Then Janie did something that the best medical treatments had been unable to do.

As she put her paws on the edge of the bed, the patient leaned over, began stroking her ears and talking.

That scene astonished the attending physician, according to one witness who was present for Janie's healing magic, and it underscored a growing feeling among health- care professionals.

It appears that sometimes, the best therapy of all can be given by a pet. Researchers across the country are learning that pets can do everything from reducing blood pressure during times of intense stress to easing the pains of loneliness.

"It's an up and coming field," says Lana Kaiser, professor of nursing at Michigan State University. Kaiser, who is also a physician and a veterinarian, is the driving force behind a conference called the Human-Animal Bond Initiative, which is held on the campus each year. It is designed to bring researchers from across the country together to exchange information about their work.

The motto is "Cuddle a Critter and Call Me in the Morning," Kaiser says.

Family Dog May Be More Helpful Than Drugs

The field, apparently, is finally coming into its own, based on the fact that scientists have pinned a label on it, complete with acronym. Researchers at the St. Louis University School of Medicine, who have shown that even 30 minutes per week with a pet can significantly reduce loneliness among residents of long-term health facilities, call it "animal-assisted therapy (AAT.)"

Although most of the evidence is anecdotal, there's some serious research taking place in various institutions in an effort to put numbers on the results and provide scientific evidence about the role animals can play in human healing. Some results suggest that the family pooch may be more helpful than drugs, at least in some cases.

One dramatic example comes from New York's University at Buffalo. Karen Allen, a research scientist in the division of clinical pharmacology in the university's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, was able to show that a good dog can do wonders to reduce stress during critical times.

Allen selected 60 volunteers, half male and half female, who were undergoing the unimaginable stress of caring for a spouse with a traumatic brain injury. All the volunteers were taking ACE inhibitors to control their blood pressure. That class of drugs can keep blood pressure under control during normal activities, but not during stressful situations, according to Allen.

Each participant was given several tests which showed that even talking about taking care of a disabled spouse sent blood pressure spiraling up by as much as 52 points. The volunteers were divided into two groups, half of which got a dog. Six months later, they were tested again, and the rest of the participants also got a dog.

At the six month point, Allen says, those with dogs showed only a small rise in blood pressure during times of stress, compared to an average rise of 40 points for those without dogs. At the end of the year-long test, when all of the participants had had a dog for at least six months, the pets had done their job well.

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