The Power of Pets: Research Finds Health Benefits for Fibromyalgia & More

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By DARLA CARTER, The Courier-Journal

Many people own pets for security or for the pure joy of it, but could Fifi, Muffin or Fido be the prescription for good health? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can decrease:
• Blood pressure
• Cholesterol and triglyceride levels
• And feelings of loneliness
Some research also indicates that pet owners exercise more and that they have a better one-year survival rate after a heart attack, said Dr. Rebecca A. Johnson, a nursing professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The evidence isn't ironclad in every area, but research is ongoing to find out just how much pets or other animals can benefit human health and under what circumstances.

When California insurance executive Dr. Jack Stephens was a practicing veterinarian, he would prescribe pets for people who'd gone through traumatic experiences. He and his wife had observed that "the simple act of getting a pet would alleviate the depression," he said. Stephens credits a former family dog with helping him to get through a grueling bout with oral cancer about 15 years ago. Spanky, a miniature dog who belonged to Stephens' wife, "had an uncanny ability to understand my needs, more so than my wife and family," he said. "When you're going through chemotherapy and radiation, sometimes you're just really pretty sick. He had a way of knowing when I needed affection … and then he knew when to just lay off and watch me." When Stephens didn't feel like going out, "Spanky got to where he would bring the leash to the door and jump up and down," something the dog had never done when Stephens was well. "He knew to be right there and uplift my spirits," said Stephens, who is now chief executive officer of Veterinary Pet Insurance in Brea, Calif., and founder of the VPI Skeeter Foundation.

The foundation, which is named for a dog Stephens acquired after Spanky died, is helping to fund research into the potential health benefits of animals. In one study, Johnson and a colleague, Dr. Richard Meadows, are studying whether interacting with dogs causes hormonal changes in the body that thwart depression. Early indications of the study are that serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in the regulation of mood, is boosted when dog owners spend quiet time petting their dogs, Johnson said. People shouldn't stop taking their antidepressants in favor of bonding with a dog, she said, but the study could help this sort of interaction become more accepted as a complementary therapy. "If these chemical changes hold (up), as we predict, then people could be benefited in a variety of situations," said Johnson, a Millsap professor of gerontological nursing at the MU Sinclair School of Nursing. "A person who has fibromyalgia and has a lot of pain and a lot of depression might be benefited, as well as anybody in regular life who happens to have depression."

In addition to the changes in serotonin, the researchers are seeing beneficial effects on other hormones linked to people's sense of well-being and decreases in cortisol, a stress-related hormone. The study, which is expected to be completed this fall, is a follow-up to a smaller study in South Africa where similar changes were noted. Research "seems to be bearing out that the reason that people are so nuts over their pets is … biochemical," said Stephens, whose foundation's motto is "prescribe pets, not pills." Stephens said research into the human-animal connection is important because it could ultimately lead to lower medical costs and less need for prescriptions, or at least that's his hope.

Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, said it's not surprising that humans benefit from interacting with animals. "Some of it is because it cues into physiological responses; some of it is because it encourages better behaviors," said Beck, a professor of animal ecology in the school of veterinary medicine at Purdue. For instance, in a second study at the University of Missouri, economically disadvantaged residents appear to be sticking with a walking program because dogs are involved, Johnson said. "In this study, we're seeing that the dogs are serving as motivators for the people to continue in the walking program," Johnson said. "These people come down because they want to see their favorite dog and they want to walk with them, so that's another way in which the human-animal bond could potentially help people."

The idea that pets can benefit humans is nothing new. The National Institutes of Health conducted a workshop about 20 years ago that found that pet-facilitated therapy can be beneficial, especially for the elderly, according to this month's issue of the University of California, Berkeley "Wellness Letter." Fish tanks have been used to relax people in dental offices and to encourage Alzheimer's patients to eat, according to Beck and Stephens. Beck also said that animals can promote human-to-human interaction. "We do know from all kinds of good studies that people in the presence of animals relate to you better, more relaxed, more often."

Animals can help bring out the elderly by giving them back the role of a nurturer (Think: feeding and petting a dog), Beck said. Lucy Emmil, a life enrichment director at the Franciscan Health Care Center in Louisville, said she couldn't imagine animals not being a part of the facility because they've been so good for residents. Assisted-living residents at Franciscan are allowed to have a pet in their apartments, and three cats are among the animals that live elsewhere in the center, Emmil said. Perusing the property, a visitor might see several birds as well as guinea pigs, hamsters and gerbils, she said. Also, some staff members bring their dogs to visit residents. Each day, Emmil brings in her chihuahua, L.D. Claire, who has several godmothers among the residents. "They love her so much, and they've watched her grow," she said. "On both sides — the assisted living side and the nursing home side — any given day you may see anywhere from two to five dogs running around," she said. "The residents really light up when they see the dogs. They remember their pet, and it just brings a more normal atmosphere to the health-care setting." Also, the pets do comical things so the residents "get the benefit of laughing and just the comfort that a pet can bring," she said. "Pets are known to bring down blood pressure, and pets kind of know when somebody doesn't feel well. They'll hang out with them a little bit," especially the cat named Sally. The animals can help residents cope with feelings of isolation, Emmil said. "I heard a resident one time talking to one of the birds," saying, "You feel caged up? I know what that feels like."

The Louisville Zoo's education department has several programs that allow various segments of the population — from children to the elderly — to interact with animals one-on-one. There are severely disabled youths who "make such a connection to our creatures," said Marcelle Gianelloni, curator of education. Even if the youths can't talk, "when you hear the shrill of excitement, it's just so great," she said. The education department also exposes some area nursing home residents to animals and has used small animals, such as chinchillas, rabbits and reptiles, as behavioral tools with at-risk youths. "By teaching them to be really careful with the animals when they pet them and (to) have respect for them, hopefully … (they'll) be respectful of each other," she said.