Healing power of Pets in Fibromyalgia and other Illnesses

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Everyone who has experienced the affection of a pet knows instinctively what is becoming progressively clear in the medical literature that pets are good for you.  According to an increasing number of scientific studies, having a pet can help people endure a heart attack, counter depression, or even depress divorce.

“The evidence favoring the health value of pets is so compelling,” says Larry Dossey, M.D., author of Reinventing Medicine, “that if pet therapy were a pill, we would not be able to manufacture it fast enough.”

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” –Ben Williams

It has been well acknowledged that dog owners are at a lesser risk of developing heart disease.  This may be due to lower systolic blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, and lower triglycerides, all are amazing dividends of dog possession. Actually, petting a familiar dog lowers blood pressure almost instantly and yields a relaxation reaction in which breathing becomes steadier and muscle tension eases.

Much of the research presenting the advantageous effects of pets has been done with dogs, and our canine friends do seem to have the most intense health effects on human health.  However, a number of studies have been conducted with cats, rabbits, turtles, or other animals.

What is so influential about having a pet?  “The secret is unconditional love,” says Dr. Rising.  “Dogs relate to people in a way we can’t relate to one another.  They’re nonjudgmental.  They’re loyal.  And this kind of unbound acceptance conveys a certain healing power.”

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Interest in the encouraging health benefits of pet ownership goes outside the United States.  In Europe, the subject has been studied by James Serpell, Ph.D., director of the Companion Animal Research Group in the Department of Clinical Veterinary Medicine at University of Cambridge, UK.  Serpell conducted a 10 month study inspecting pet ownership in the same manner that researchers study the effects of a new medication.  His study observed the influence on 71 adults of obtaining a new dog or cat.  Twenty six subjects without pets worked as a comparison group.  The pet owner group described a noteworthy decrease in minor health difficulties after the first month with their animals and enhancements in psychological wellbeing after the first six months.  Dog owners continued the improvements for the whole 10 month period of the study.

While much of the medical literature centers on the role of pet ownership in disease prevention, a number of studies have discovered the advantages of animal company for people who live with an extensive variety of diseases and disabilities.

One study (Siegel, Angulo, Detels, Wesch, & Mullen, 1999) explored the relationship between pet ownership, AIDS, and depression.  The researchers found that people with AIDS who had pets reported less depression than those with AIDS who did not have pets.  Other studies have exposed optimistic effects of pet ownership on patients with Alzheimer’s disease, autism, movement or hearing disabilities, and more.

Actually, we humans can learn a great deal from our pets as role models, they give a boundless source of unconditional love without expecting anything in response.  They live in the moment.  And they appreciate the smallest enjoyments.  But the lessons our pets can teach us are even more vital for sufferers of chronic illness.  Zoey knows how to relax.  Since I consider myself rather challenged in that region, I often watch her with wonder and modesty.  She likes a walk every morning; then she snuggles up on the unmade bed to unwind, always placing her head on the highest point in the pile of rumpled covers.  When she experiences stress (a cat outside the window, a knock at the door, or my leaving on an errand), she is attentive and centers all her energy on the job at hand.  But when the tense moment has passed, she relaxes down in a wisely selected spot, and she sleeps.  When she gets up from a rest, she stretches before doing anything else.  She knows the art of play, the delight of running after her ball, rolling on her back with her paws spread eagle in the air, or a good game of tug-of-war.  And after she plays, she rests some more.

Those of us who live with CFS/Fibromyaliga know how hard it can be to manage with chronic illness because it affects all parts of our lives.  Many sufferers experience the loss of an occupation, a loss or alteration in relationships, or the incompetence to follow interests and passions.  Feelings of separation and solitude are common.  But animals stay restricted in their beliefs of us and constant in their love.  Zoey gets happy about my slightest accomplishments, just my getting out of bed or walking into a room makes her jump for joy.  Our pets can remind us to rejoice the most trivial of accomplishments and the smallest of joys.

Some pets, most often dogs, are specially trained to help improve the life of someone with a disease or disability.  According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a dog is considered a service dog if it has been separately trained to do work or achieve tasks for the advantage of a person with a disability.  Most people think of service dogs as those that help the blind, hearing impaired, or people in wheelchairs.  However, any person who has a physical or mental damage that considerably limits a major life activity might be a candidate for a service dog.  Service dogs can benefit people with disabilities related with many diagnoses, including arthritis, ataxia/poor balance, multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders, psychiatric disabilities, and many others.

How pets make you happier and healthier

When you come home to a purr or wagging tail at the end of a stressful day, the sudden wave of calm you feel isn’t just your imagination. Research suggests that your fluffy friend truly is good for your physical and mental health. “Pets often provide unconditional acceptance and love and they’re always there for you,” says Gary A. Christenson, MD, chief medical officer at Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota. “There is a bond and companionship that makes a big difference in mental health,” not to mention the extra exercise you get from walks and playtime. Read on to learn the surprising ways your pet can boost your health.

Mood Boost

It only takes a few minutes with a dog or cat or watching fish swim to feel calmer and less stressed. Your body actually goes through physical changes in that time that make a difference in your mood. The level of cortisol, a stress hormone, lowers. And serotonin, a feel-good chemical your body makes, rises.

Pets may lower your cholesterol

If you have a dog, those daily walks are helping to keep your cholesterol in check, says Rebecca A. Johnson, PhD, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. Plus, a survey by the Australian National Heart Foundation revealed that people who own pets, especially men, tend to have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Pets help relieve stress

Simply being in the same room as your pet can have a calming effect. “A powerful neurochemical, oxytocin, is released when we look at our companion animal, which brings feelings of joy,” says Johnson. “It’s also accompanied by a decrease in cortisol, a stress hormone.” Through her research with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Johnson has witnessed the powerful effects of animals. “One veteran couldn’t leave his home without his wife until we placed a dog with him and in less than a week he was able to go around his town,” she says.

Pets may reduce your blood pressure

It’s a win-win: petting your pooch or kitty brings down blood pressure while pleasing your pet. Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo discovered that in people already taking medication for hypertension, their blood pressure response to stress was cut by half if they owned a cat or dog.

Pets boost your fitness

A dog is the best companion for a stroll—even better than a friend. Johnson—co-author of Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound—led a study at the University of Missouri that found that dog walkers improved their fitness more than people who walked with other people. A separate study found that dog owners walked 300 minutes a week on average, while people who didn’t own dogs walked just 168 minutes a week. And a study in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health found that not only did dog owners walk more than non-owners, they were also 54% more likely to meet the recommended levels of physical activity.

Pets reduce your cardiovascular disease risk

Lower cholesterol, stress, and blood pressure levels combined with increased fitness may add up to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. That’s a theory supported by the American Heart Association. In 2013, the AHA reviewed numerous studies examining the effects of pet ownership on cardiovascular disease risk and concluded that having a furry friend, particularly a dog, is associated with a reduction in risk and increased survival among patients.

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Pets may prevent allergies in children

If you had a pet as a kid, you may be in luck. In a study published in Clinical & Experimental Allergy, children who were exposed to pets before they were six months old were less likely to develop allergic diseases, hay fever, and eczema as they got older. “In the first year of life, babies who are exposed to dogs in the household are more likely not to have allergies, asthma, and fewer upper respiratory infections,” says Johnson. “If exposed at an early age to dander and allergens, we may be less reactive to them over time.” And kids who grow up around farm animals, dogs, or cats typically have stronger immune systems and a reduced risk of developing asthma or eczema.

Pets relieve depression

Pets can provide social support for their owners, who tend to have better overall wellbeing than non-owners, according to a study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. And a large review of studies by the British Psychological Society found that dogs especially promote therapeutic and psychological wellbeing, particularly lowering stress levels and boosting self-esteem, as well as feelings of autonomy and competence. “The calming presence and the social bond that pets bring can be very powerful,” says Dr. Christenson. “Animals give something to focus on instead of the negative thoughts a depressed person is prone to have. When a pet pays attention to you, they’re giving you unconditional love and acceptance.”

Pets ease chronic pain

Having critters around the house can help distract from chronic pain. “Petting your animal releases endorphins—the same hormones that give a runner’s high—and they are powerful pain relievers,” says Johnson. “That’s been demonstrated in hospitalized patients who had a visit from an animal and reported less pain simply from one visit.” In fact, Loyola University Chicago researchers found that people who underwent joint replacement surgery used less pain medication when they received pet therapy. And one American Journal of Critical Care study found that patients hospitalized for heart failure had improved cardio functioning when visited by a dog. The simple task of caring for a pet can also be a positive distraction for people in pain.

Pets improve relationships

Young adults with a deep bond to their pets felt more connected in their relationships and to their communities than those who did not have animals in a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Science. They were more likely to take on leadership roles and tended to be more confident and empathetic; Johnson says it’s reasonable to believe that this would be the case with older adults as well.

Pets monitor health changes

Pets are very sensitive to their owners’ behavior, which can be helpful for those who suffer from diabetes. Some animals can sense plummeting blood sugar levels before their owners can. “When diabetics get low blood sugar they get ketoacidosis (when they can’t use sugar as a fuel source), which changes the smell of their breath, and trained dogs can pick up on that scent change,” explains Christopher Buckley, director of veterinary medicine at the Human Society of West Michigan in Kalamazoo. “It’s not in the innate ability of every dog, but they can be trained to do that.” Need a furry minder? There are several organizations that specifically train dogs to aid diabetics, including Early Alert Canines, Dogs4Diabetics, and Dogs Assisting Diabetics.

Pets boost your self-esteem

“Pets are completely non-judgmental, don’t have an agenda, take you at face value, and they don’t care what you look like or how you behave—they love unconditionally, and that boots self-esteem,” says Johnson. “Confidence can be improved by the fact that dogs love you no matter what, and to the same extent, cats are very loving to their owners.” Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that pet owners had higher self-esteem, as well as feelings of belonging and meaningful existence than non-owners.

Pets bring your family closer together

Whether you make your kids take turns walking the dog or it’s always your job to feed the cat, research has proven having a pet is good for the whole family. “Pets can be a very important bridge between family members,” says Johnson. “Often grandchildren have a hard time talking to a grandparent, so pets can be a natural bridge, providing a convenient and easy topic of conversation.” Additionally, children often have their first death experience through animals, which is a teachable moment. “Pets can provide the ultimate learning experience, kids learn how to treat others with kindness and caring, and they teach responsibility,” Johnson explains.


  • livingwithcfs.com/the-healing-power-of-pets/
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