Brain Body Connection
Adventures with Sadie
by Tammera J. Karr, PhD, BCHN, BCIH
Health is affected by many things – one of those is pets. Not everyone is well suited to having a pet; some may have severe allergies that prevent them from having the standard dog or cat. There is no denying the importance of pets for not only our physical health but also for our mental. This has especially been made apparent to me over the last few weeks with the addition of Sadie a red Tri-Color Australian Shepard to our family.
Our dogs like many of yours are part of the family; they hold war game events with the cats, fiercely protect our home, office and vehicles, supervise gardening and act as drill instructors to get us exercising. But I truly think the most important job they have is to make us laugh, smile and remember to enjoy the simple things.
When patients come to the office to see my colleague who is a pain specialist, it is easy to pick out those who have pets… Some of them bring their pets with them as they are designated therapy animals. More and more hospitals are allowing or encouraging therapy dog and even cat visitations to patients. I have seen Spaniel, Labs and Aussies with their little vests on at St. Charles Hospital in Bend, most everyone, especially the staff stop to say hi to these valuable medical assistants.
Professionally trained helper animals—such as guide dogs for the blind—offer obvious benefits to human folk. However, the average domestic pet, can also provide us with many therapeutic benefits. Pets can ease our loneliness, reduce our stress, promote social interaction, encourage exercise and playfulness, and provide us with unconditional love and affection.
While most pet owners are clear about the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with companion animals, many remain unaware of the physical and mental health benefits that also accompany the pleasure of playing with or snuggling up to a furry friend. It’s only recently that studies have begun to scientifically explore the benefits of the human-animal bond. Studies have found that:
- Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.
- People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets.
- Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
- Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
- Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
- Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
- A pet doesn’t have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and pulse rate.
One of the reasons for these therapeutic effects is most pets fulfill the basic human need to touch. Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with pets, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time. Stroking, holding, cuddling, or otherwise touching a loving animal can rapidly calm and soothe us when we’re stressed. 
When Chad, a yellow Labrador retriever, moved in with Claire Vaccaro’s family in 2009, he already had an important role. As an autism service dog, he was joining the family to help protect Ms. Vaccaro’s 11-year-old son, Milo — especially in public, where he often had tantrums or tried to run away. Like many companion animals, Chad had an immediate effect. Dr. Melissa A. Nishawala, clinical director of the autism-spectrum service at the Child Study Center at New York University, said she saw “a prominent and noticeable change” in Milo, even though the dog just sat quietly in the room. “He started to give me narratives in a way he never did,” adding that most of them were about the dog.
The need to take care of your pet is motivation to get out of bed or move around, fixing your attention on something besides how bad you feel. This in turn releases endorphins, natural pain suppressors and increases serotonin and dopamine brain chemicals that make us feel good.
So as a proud parent let me share a little about our wild red head – in the weeks we have had Sadie, we are walking 2 to 3 miles daily, she has learned to use the pet door, been indoctrinated on electric fence safety, found she couldn’t dig quite all the way to China at the beach, turkeys are scary and ugly, cats are great fun to play war games with, everything is for chewing on, you can open a gate if you pretend your paws are hands and it’s important to be gentle with elderly family members and clients at the office. No wonder we are exhausted…. And one of her most impressive feet’s has been to steel the son’s cell phone out from under his nose, and run off to her bed with it to hide in wait – without him realizing it! Now that was funny…
So if you live someplace that doesn’t allow pets and you need one for your health, find out if your care provider will write you a statement of need for a therapy animal, dog, cat, fish, reptile or bird – they all provide individuals with connection to another living thing, purpose and motivation.
There is more to good health than the Status Quo.
Check out my e-book, “Fine Food for Fur Coats”.
 New York Times By CARLA BARANAUCKAS Published: October 5, 2009