Pets can provide healthy benefits

Although most health care professionals won't go so far as to advise patients to run out and get a pet, many do recognize the health benefits that animal companionship can provide.

As the rest of us have known for a long time, pets can give comfort, relieve loneliness, provide home security and generally add that extra spark of interest to life.

Numerous studies support the health benefits of pets, said Mara Baun, D.N.Sc., professor at The University of Texas School of Nursing at Houston. In fact, she has conducted many key research projects demonstrating how a pet can help reduce blood pressure in adults and reduce agitation in both senior citizens and children.

Not just any animal will do.

"People derive the greatest health benefits from their own pet, or one to whom they feel some personal attachment," noted Baun.

"I recall with special fondness the case of the elderly man in an Alzheimer's unit who became 'best friends' with a resident dog a dog who chose to sleep in his room every night. Once, that man agitatedly roamed the halls, oblivious to all persuasion by the nurses. Then the dog approached, took him by the shirt sleeve, and quietly led him back to their room."

That's anecdotal evidence. But before declaring pets to be "good for what ails you," Baun designed and supervised a wide range of studies. Most of them used a dog as pet of choice and some of the early ones involved her own beagles, Belle and Roo. In later studies, trained and certified golden retrievers provided the "pet therapy."

Baun had several questions to which she wanted answers, and for each she designed well-controlled studies:

  • Can petting a dog lower the blood pressure of a normally healthy adult?

"Yes, if it's a dog to whom you feel attached. Blood pressure decreases about the same amount as it can when other known relaxation techniques, like relaxation tapes, are used. The companionship of a beloved pet is a positive cue to relaxation."

  • Can having a dog in an Alzheimer's unit increase socializing and decrease agitation?

"Yes. When we videotaped and coded specific behaviors, we found a statistically significant lessening of agitation and a corresponding increase in social interaction. When the dog was a resident of the unit, problem behaviors of the residents decreased and remained decreased throughout the month of the study."

  • Can a dog reduce a child's distress in a doctor's or dentist's clinic?

"Definitely. In our studies, the children who showed the greatest signs of fright and

distress benefited the most. Parents especially expressed amazement at how much the dog calmed their children."

Although dogs were used in most of these studies, other animals can help a person attain some of the same emotional and physical benefits. Baun also conducted a study with caged birds in rehabilitation units.

Residents who had birds in their rooms were significantly less depressed than those in the control group who did not get the birds. One woman reported that her doctor sang to the bird every morning when he came in and that her grandchildren stayed longer on their visits.