When Bridgitte Farrell heard the diagnosis of breast cancer, she knew she was in for a battle. But what she didn't realize is that one of her important weapons in that fight would be a dog named Lucky.
In March 2006, Farrell learned she had breast cancer and started treatment two months later. "The chemotherapy really depressed me and kicked my butt," said the executive director of the Frederick County Humane Society. "It took a toll on me and there were days I couldn't get out of bed." Sensing her pain, Farrell's eight-year-old black lab stayed by her side. "I used to lay on him and cry on him. He knew I needed him and he never left me," she said. "He just knew I was very sick and it was comforting to have him with me." A majority of Americans think pets are comforting to have around. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association's latest statistics, there are more than 72 million pet dogs in the U.S. and about 82 million pet cats.
In a 2006 survey, 49.7 percent of pet owners considered their pets to be family members. About two-thirds of U.S. households own at least one pet. "There are a lot of general health benefits to having pets, both physical and mental," said Adam Goldfarb, director of the pets at risk program for the Human Society of the United States. The National Institutes of Health has launched several meetings this past year to bring together leading experts in the field of human-animal interactions to uncover connections between human health and animals.
"The general belief is that there are health benefits to owning pets, both in terms of psychological growth and development, as well as physical health benefits," says Dr. James Griffin, a scientist at NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "But there have been relatively few well-controlled studies. That's the state of the science, in a nutshell." Pets and cardio health Some studies looked at ways pets can improve humans' cardiovascular health. The NIH study found that of 421 adults who suffered heart attacks, those who were dog owners were more likely to still be alive than those who did not own dogs, regardless of the severity of the heart attack. Another study showed those married couples who owned a pet were found to have lower heart rates and blood pressure whether at rest or during stress test than those without pets. Pet owners also were noted as having a milder response and quicker recovery from stress when they were with their pets than when with a spouse or friend. Dog owners are also shown to get more exercise and are less likely to be obese than others, according to another NIH investigation. Dog owners also tend to walk faster and for longer period of time each week than others who didn't walk regularly.
This regular dog walking also helped older pet owners have better general mobility. "I think we're just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know about the human-animal bond and its potential health benefits," said Dr. Sandra Barker, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. "This area is primed for a lot of research that still needs to be done." Socially, dogs have helped their owners initiate conversations and stay socially connected, according to the NIH. Social benefits of pets Karen Hall, social work supervisor and coordinator of adult services for the Frederick County Mental Health Department, said pets can aid those who are shy or socially awkward develop social connections. "People who are anxious, especially those with social anxiety where it is tough for them to leave the home, when have a pet that they can walk, it helps them to go outside and they can focus on walking the pet instead of paying attention to those around them," Hall said. "The presence of a pet encourages others to interact with them. They won't have to initiate the conversation and there is something to talk about." Just being able to see or pet an animal can help those with physical pain or emotional issues. "It gives us something to hug or nurture. We are distracted or entertained by their behavior," Hall said, adding that a pet allows a person to be in charge of something, giving them a sense of being needed. Hall noted that doctors often use aquariums as a way of calming patients and reducing patient blood pressure.
The NIH is working on research examining the benefits of bringing specially trained animals to clinical settings. Animal-assisted therapies are being used in many settings such as horseback riding. Other animals that visit with patients help ease patient anxiety and stress. Gabe O'Neill of Wags for Hope, a nonprofit organization that provides volunteers to bring their pets to nursing homes, hospice facilities and other operations, knows the value of the animal-human bond. "We have had a lot of people say they have forgotten about their pain. To pet an animal is a soothing thing," O'Neill said. The group has about 120 volunteers with cats, dogs, rabbits, horses and even a cockatiel. Wags for Hope began in 2006 after O'Neill experienced the healing power of his own Bernese mountain dog named Charlie. "I literally can recall a day when I was having a bad day and it was a really bad day. I went on my deck to clear my head and my dog was out there," O'Neill said. "I gave him a big hug and felt a rush of warmth and I felt better from that one small thing. That is when I was convinced there are heath benefits from animals."