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The Healing Power of Pets
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 too. 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 from touch. 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.

One 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.

Another 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 allergy/asthma sufferers.

Although 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,

We 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 neurotransmitters in the blood that alleviate depression.

Do you have a compelling story about the "Healing Power of Pets?" If so please send it to me at for consideration in my next book.
The ideal story shows how involvement with a pet took a person with a physical or emotional problem from a state of illness or isolation to a better connection with the world and/or improved health. Details make the story live. The author must have observed the relationship first hand and be able to describe the atmosphere of the home and the personalities of both pet and human companion. Any turning points in the relationship -- when the owner started to walk again or said his or her first word in years -- should be described in full. In some cases other people who observed the relationship -- relatives or friends -- should be interviewed if they observed an important moment. As the author may need to answer additional questions about the story prior to publication, both the owner and the pet should be living.

Anne Sellaro Associates, Inc.,
PO Box 115
Saxtons River, Vermont, 05154
Fax (802) 869-2277

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