Animals are good for your health
Although I've only owned my pet for a few months, as the proud caretaker of Oscar, my Dachshund, I can already attest to the health benefits of living with a furry companion.
Oscar is always excited (sometimes too excited) to see me; and all thoughts of problems are wiped away as soon as we start to play with his squeaky toys. (Have you ever seen a weiner dog jump with glee?) As for my physical health, Oscar prevents procrastinating on an exercise routine -- he gets me walking outside at least three times a day.
Do pets have this healthy effect on everyone? I didn't have to look far to find some answers. A group in Southwest believes they're living proof of the power of pets.
Redeemer critters Wendy Watson is an activities coordinator at the Redeemer Residence nursing home at 625 W. 31st St. She often strolls the halls of the nursing home with Hezzie, a large white bird, on her shoulder. As I approached her cage in the common area, Hezzie greeted me with "Hello."
Watson said the nursing home staff was convinced interacting with animals would improve residents' health, both mental and physical. Six years ago, Redeemer joined the Eden Program to incorporate animals into their residents' lives.
Now residents enjoy and help to care for many feathered, four-legged or scaly companions, including one cockatoo, six parakeets, two dogs, five cats, one guinea pig and scores of fish in numerous tanks.
Dr. Jim Struve, Redeemer's medical director, said the pets have a positive impact on his patients. "It's quite poignant to see what animals do to relax people," he said.
Struve also said the animals can help jog one's memory -- someone with dimensia, for example, can suddenly recall playing with their childhood canine companion.
Melva Kramer, resident, said she likes to feed and help care for Tillie the guinea pig. "It's fun," she said. "He nibbles on your hand a bit, but it doesn't hurt."
Kramer said she enjoys the dogs the most because she used to have a show-winning Boxer. She said she tolerates the cats.
Animal doctors Watson said the animals help decrease residents' largest health risk factors: helplessness, loneliness and boredom.
She said some residents wait all day for designated pet playtime, there's "cat time," "dog time" and bird watching groups (when not perching on shoulders, the birds spend their time in cages and a sanctuary). Watson said other residents like to help maintain the animals, helping to clean and feed them. "Residents look forward to interacting with the pets," she said. "They feel a sense of purpose, and it goes with health."
Many depressed residents showed signs of improved moods during and after interacting with animals, Watson said. In one case, Watson saw a depressed resident return to his happier self after receiving his own parakeet.
Watson also said residents who have become nearly comatose from dementia do respond and try to pet the animals. "Whether or not they can verbalize it, you can tell they're trying to get the animal to come to them," she said.
Medical literature promotes pets What Watson has witnessed at Redeemer is exactly what researchers have found in medical studies nationwide.
The Delta Society is a nonprofit, international organization that links people with mental and physical disabilities with professionally trained animals. As part of their outreach, the Delta Society put together a fact sheet listing dozens of statistics from medical and scientific studies touting the benefits of animals on a person's health.
According to their findings, pet owners have lower blood pressure, a better psychological state, a higher survival rate after coronary heart disease and are in better physical condition as a result of exercising with their pet.
Their findings also showed that pets are beneficial to the physical and mental health of children. They found children with pets develop a more nurturing personality, show improved cognitive development and, if exposed to pets at a young age, are less likely to develop certain types of allergies and asthma. They also achieve higher scores on tests measuring empathy and social skills than children without pets.
Dr. Struve cautioned that it's hard to measure the effect of animals on disease because it's hard to tell if a positive occurrence is due to animal interaction or something else. But, he said, he definitely sees the benefits in his patients' mental state, with time spent with animals brightening their mood.
Dr. Robert Anderson, professor emeritus of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, has researched the emotional and mental benefits of animal companionship. His results are included in a study, "The Changing Status of Animals and Human-Animal Bonds," published through the University's Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments (CENSHARE).
Anderson, who is also the director of CENSHARE, said the animal-human relationship has evolved throughout the past century, resulting in an increased bond with real benefits for humans.
"Animals offer companionship -- someone to talk to who will not criticize. They are living, responding beings to touch or hug with emotion. Animals keep us alert and help fulfill our need to nurture and comfort others," he said.
Looks like I need Oscar as much as he needs me.
For more information about CENSHARE, check out www.censhare.umn.edu. For more information about the Delta Society, visit www.deltasociety.org.