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.
"The findings of this study show that pets can help lower responses to everyday stress, even among individuals who take medication for their high blood pressure," Allen says in a report on the experiment. "Although medication reduces resting blood pressure, it appears a beloved pet influences how we react to stressful people and situations that we cannot change."
Better Than a Best Friend?
Allen recently took her research to a new level with an experiment that revealed that spending a little time with the family pet may relieve stress better than talking with a best friend or spouse. She studied 240 married couples and found that those who owned pets fared better during stress tests if the pet was present than if the spouse or a friend was there. The researchers have speculated that maybe the participants knew their pets would be less judgmental than their spouses or friends when going through the stress tests.
Meanwhile, over at Texas A&M veterinarian Dr. Bonnie Beaver (great name for a vet) has compiled a long list of studies that purport to show that pets can be very good medicine indeed. Those studies indicate that 100 seniors on Medicare who own dogs made 21 percent fewer visits to a physician than those without dogs, and pet owners have lower cholesterol levels than non-owners, and pet owners are generally in better physical condition because they spend some time exercising the family mutt.
A lot of those stats are anecdotal, of course, but I know that last one is true because my border collie (Jeeves, the Wonder Dog) insists on a one hour walk every day.
Cats, Dogs and Cows
None of the research so far answers that most fundamental question of all: Which is better, a cat or a dog?
Michigan State's Kaiser resolves it this way:
"I think different animals do different things for different people. Very often if you take an animal to a nursing home, that animal will trigger a memory."
So someone raised on a farm might respond better to a pig than a cat, she says. But chances are the animal of choice will probably be a dog, because they are more easily trained than most pets, and thus tend to be more welcome in nursing homes.
A therapeutic flashback may be a significant part of why animals can help, but Kaiser admits she really doesn't know the complete answer. "Why," she says, is a very difficult question to answer. And the door is still open as to which pets are best.
As for Kaiser, she's taking no chances.
"I have three dogs, four cats and 18 cows," she says.
But no husband.
"I'd rather have a cow," she says.
Maybe it's possible to carry this a bit too far.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.