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The Healing Powers of Pets
By Dr. Marty Becker
Excerpt from Healing Powers of Pets
Books by Dr. Marty Becker
As a veterinarian, I gradually came to see the link
between the health of the pet and the health of its human companion.
When an animal's illness was so severe that we had to hold it in the
hospital for an extended stay, frequently
it would wither and we'd have to do tricks to get it to eat.
Similarly if in the grocery store I bumped into humans whose pets
had passed away, I'd notice some of the life had left them too. This
alerted me to how interwoven pets were in the social and emotional fabric
of the family. In many ways, they reflected the family's health problems
In families where the pet
had a discipline problem, you could bet the kids were uncontrolled as
well. Or if the pet was
listless and depressed, you could see that conditioned mirrored in one or
more family member. The owners of overweight pets frequently sent the dial
on the scale - spinning. I
often found that when I prescribed a weight loss diet and exercise for the
pet, the next time I saw the owner, he or she would have shed a few pounds
along with the pet. So it became clear to me that the maintaining the
health of the pet was vital for the social, emotional and physical health
of the whole family, but I didn't have any scientific evidence to back
up my hunches.
The popular press is full of stories
of people who through their strong relationship with their animals found a
reason to go on living despite their illnesses. What surprised me was how this bond was as well founded in science
as in emotion. What we crave
and receive through an intimate relationship with an animal is intimacy, a
non-judgmental audience who is always happy to see us and rarely shrinks
As we pet our
animals, our heart rates lower, blood pressure drops and mood altering
neurochemicals such as phenylethalamine (active ingredient in chocolate),
dopamine, beta-endorphins, prolactin, and oxytocin are released on our
bloodstream. A biochemical spa treatment of sorts, these natural
substances increase in the blood stream whenever bonding takes place and
stimulate feelings of elation, safety, tranquility, happiness,
satisfaction, nurturing and even love, and are the same substances
released when a mother nurses her baby. No wonder people reach for their pets in times of stress!
This interaction is the basis for all
the positive health benefits of having a pet in your home, a creature that
encourages the intimacy that is missing from so much of our high-tech,
low-touch world. What surprised me about what we found as we researched
the book was how having another creature so attuned to your rhythms and
routine can benefit your health on many levels.
Pets can detect small
variations in behavior that even your loved ones don't notice. Animals featured in our book detect a drop in blood sugar in
diabetics, the onset of manic behavior in manic-depressives, cancer and
give an alert to an oncoming heart attack. For those trying to stick to an exercise regimen, pets are the best
personal trainers money can't buy. The
number one factor in adhering to a fitness routine is a supportive family
member. Yet a dog doesn't just offer an encouraging word from time to
time like a well-meaning family member might. He knows when you're supposed to go for a walk and can make your
life pretty miserable if you try and weasel out of it.
of the amazing powers of pets is their ability to attack the chronic
morbid condition of sedentary lifestyle with joy instead of grinding
discipline. And when you get out into the world with the pet as your
companion you are increasingly more likely to interact with those you see. Studies here and in the United Kingdom showed that those who walked
with a dog were three times more likely to chat with passersby, which
researchers pointed out is a key to a greater sense of psychological
well-being. And studies of
human health time and again, particularly the great work done by Dr. James
Lynch of Johns Hopkins, demonstrate the punishing health side effects of
loneliness. Pets are an important bulwark against the isolation of our
increasingly single society.
discovery in the book that surprised me is how effective they can be in
preventing allergies. Doctors used to believe that those with allergies
couldn't be around pets, but recent studies indicate that exposure to
pets early in life might actually help the body build defenses against
allergies and asthma, thereby protecting children from developing
reactions, rather than triggering them. The pets have to be chosen carefully, however, the book offers
detailed advice choosing between cats and dogs, pets with long hair or
short, dark or lights coats and the advantages of male vs. female for
we covered a lot of ground in the book, finding ways that pets can help
with child rearing, psychological health, heart disease, cancer, obesity,
and keep seniors young and active,
were able to include some of the latest research on how pets help with the
treatment of chronic pain, but since the book went to press, some exciting
new research on the biochemical basis for how pets help with depression.
We wrote extensively about how hospitals, including the National
Institutes of Health, regularly prescribe animal assisted therapy teams to
help hospital patients cope with depression. Pets serve as a focus on
something outside yourself and interacting with them, petting them, puts
you in a calming, meditative state. Research that has come out since the book went to press shows that
pets actually increase the building blocks of neuro-transmitters in the
blood that alleviate depression.
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