"Staring out the daylit window in the geriatric wing of a Weiss Memorial Hospital room, Ann, a gray-haired woman with pale hunting eyes and paler skin, sat motionless on the edge of her bed. In the doorway, Terry Tauber and Ranger waited for to be announced.
Ann, with squinting eyes and unable to understand English, looked confused. She could not see well enough to know that Terry, a retired Chicago police officer, and her therapy dog had come to visit. Terry and Ranger, a six-year-old sable Collie, approached slowly. Ann’s face lit up. Color infused her cheeks and she reached out both hands to envelop Ranger’s muzzle. Then, closing her eyes, she tilted her head upward and smiled.
“Good, good,” she murmered—one of the few English words she knows. In an instant, Ranger had put a smile on Ann’s face. She looked at Terry and nodded, yes, yes. And Ranger gave clear testimony that he loves his job. The certified therapy dog leaned his head against Ann’s leg while she stroked his neck. Though scores of medical websites and several scholarly journals present evidence that pets have a positive effect on our physical health, none compares to the immediate and visible evidence revealed in an encounter like the one between Ann and Ranger. During a five-minute visit, Ranger’s tactile presence had completely altered Ann’s countenance. She seemed cheerful, relaxed and perfectly at ease.
In fact, physicians have demonstrated that dogs and cats can help lower blood pressure, and suggest that our pets may decrease heart attack mortality (by 3%), and increase the recovery rate and longevity of coronary patients. Certainly, Manchester, CT cardiologist Dr. Steven Sinatra is a believer. He brings two Labs and an Elkhound to his practice every day, where, he says, they ”keep both the patients and me calm. Loneliness is one of the damaging risk factors in people recovering from heart disease.” He also notes that pet owners have five times the survival rate of those who don’t have pets. Most studies seem to agree that because stress is a contributing factor to so many physical aliments, the stress relief demonstrated by pets is a definite health benefit. But pets also have a positive effect on our mental well-being. The American Journal of Orthopsychiatry noted that the recovery in adults with mental disease is improved markedly, because the presence of a pet can positively influence such issues as empathy, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Indeed, pets seem to have us covered from head to toe, and from the time we are tots to our senior days. On the website of The Delta Society, whose mission is to “advance human health and well being through positive interaction with animals,” regular postings compile the latest research on the intersection of pets and health. For example, the myriad contributions pets make to our children include: *lowering anxiety during a doctor or dental exam *helping cope with serious illness or a death *increasing early cognitive development *encouraging participation in sports and hobbies *reducing the risk of allergies and asthma when a child is exposed to a pet during the first year of life *engendering empathy *increasing the verbal and tactile responses of children with autism As for the seniors among us, the contributions are many: *less frequent visits to the doctor. (A 10-month study conducted by Great Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine compared 71 adults who owned pets with 26 who did not. The group with pets showed a “significant reduction in health problems during the first month that sustained throughout the study.”) *lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels *increased exercise *higher levels of mental acuity among those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s The pet-health relationship continues to be an energetic field of study. Among the ongoing in-depth explorations are those being conducted by The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institute of Health. The study hopes to find “tangible” evidence that pets can enhance a child’s well-being. On the hospital’s hospice ward, Terry and Ranger stopped to see a Chinese woman. Slumped in a wheel chair and holding her son’s hand, she is gaunt and listless. She speaks no English; but Ranger’s language is universal. When he approached her and flashed that famous Collie smile, she flashed back her own. Terry put a treat in the woman’s, Ranger gently retrieved it, and the woman was delighted. “It’s amazing,” Terry said. Ranger earned his therapy certificate from the Delta Society, whose green cape identified him as he walked the hospital corridors. Heads turn, teeth glint, hands wave. They began their twice-a-week mission two years ago, and Ranger is the second generation to enter service. His late dad, Cody—also raised and trained by Terry—served as a therapy dog before him. “Every time I take the cape out,” Terry said, “Ranger gets excited. It’s just a good thing for everybody.” Dr. Robb Dann, of Chicago’s Blum Animal Hospital, says his long experience as a vet has taught him that the benefits of pets are “immeasurable.”
Dr. Melissa Nishawala thinks so, too. As clinical director of the autism-spectrum service at the Child Study Center at New York University, she is an enthusiastic proponent of therapy dogs. Over and over, she has witnessed the remarkable effect of patients. However, she told the New York Times, “It is the kind of effect that is noticeable but has yet to be fully understood through scientific study.” That effect “opened my eyes 30 years ago,” says Dr. Shelly Rubin, who in January retired after a career of service at Blum. As a member of the Pets Are Wonderful Council, he realized the wider application of therapy dogs. “Our perception of therapy dogs was basically limited to guide dogs for the blind and deaf,” noted Rubin. Now he says, therapy animals has become residents of nursing homes, partners of social workers, and perform a vital function in almost every facet of human health. “It’s that extraordinary non-verbal communication that we have with our pets,” Dr. Rubin said. “They speak with their eyes, their tongues, their noses, their paws.” Which brings us to the most edifying notion of all—that pets often fulfill the same functions as humans for adults and children. It is a proposition with which Alan Beck, director of Purdue University’s Center for Human-Animal Bond, agrees. He told Newsweek Magazine of one study showing that 97 percent of pet owners talk to their pets. But that doesn’t make us odd. It just means, he said, “The other three percent lied.””