Pets: The Happy Diversion for Good Health

Our pets give us love, affection and even protection sometimes. But did you know it’s a scientific fact that our pets also make us healthier?

According to the Centers for Disease Control, pets can lower your blood pressure, your cholesterol levels and your triglyceride levels. They can reduce feelings of loneliness and increase opportunities to be outdoors, even for exercise. In addition, they offer opportunities for socialization, because let’s face it — almost everyone loves to pet a friendly dog.

In fact, an economic analysis funded by the Human-Animal Bond Research Initiative (HABRI) and conducted by two researchers from George Mason University calculated an $11.7 billion savings in U.S. healthcare costs as a result of pet ownership.

And one National Institutes for Health study followed 421 adults who suffered heart attacks. A year later, the dog owners were more likely to be alive than those who did not own dogs, regardless of how severe the heart attack was.

Another NIH study looked at more than 2,000 adults and found that dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn’t own or walk a dog. And still another NIH study tracked 2,500 adults ages 71 to 82 for three years. Those who regularly walked their dogs walked faster and for longer periods each week, and they had greater mobility inside their homes.

But pet ownership isn’t the only way pets can help improve the overall health and well-being of people. HABRI’s survey of family doctors and general practitioners found that 69 percent of doctors surveyed have worked with animals in a hospital, medical center or medical practice to assist patient therapy or treatment. The doctors said interactions with animals improve patients’ physical condition by 88 percent, their mental health condition by 97 percent, their mood or outlook by 98 percent, and their relationships with staff by 76 percent.

Rick Huntoon takes his dog Macy to visit patients at many area hospitals, including Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano, where Macy visits patients. He says Macy attracts a lot of attention, which she likes. They are part of Pet Partners, an organization that coordinates and trains teams nationwide.

Hospital patient advocate Kate Mize began the Caring Canines program at Texas Health Plano a few years ago. Now, about a dozen volunteers and 15 dogs participate with help from Pet Partners.

“Macy has had basic obedience, of course, and has passed her AKC Good Citizen test. We reinforce basic skills all the time to keep her sharp,” Huntoon said.

Huntoon added that socialization and the acceptance of people who approach Macy and touch her were the most critical aspects of her training, along with the ability to not react when distractions such as noise, moving objects or other dogs or animals are present.

“We spent countless hours exposing her to every possible situation. I took her everywhere I could from the time she was 7 weeks old,” he said. “I like Lowe’s the best because there is so much noise and movement of people and machines such as forklifts with beeps blaring as they move down the aisles. And people come up to her just like in the hospital and ask to pet her.”

Training aside, Huntoon said some dogs are just born for this type of work.

“You have to start with a good well-rounded dog. Macy was just plain special from day one,” Huntoon said. “I’d like to take credit for what a great dog she is, but all I did was follow her lead and give her the nurturing she needed to reach her potential.”

And that potential has made her a real source of calming comfort for patients and their families, as well as the nurses and doctors who treat them.

“Patients react with instant smiles and want to touch and interact with her. They want to talk about their dogs and ask questions about Macy,” Huntoon said. “They are outwardly grateful to me for bringing her to see them. I have had patients get down on the floor and just ‘melt’ into Macy with a big hug. You can see for just a few minutes they forget about everything and just enjoy being with Macy.”

But Macy’s love isn’t just for patients who are recuperating; it’s also for nurses and other staff who sometimes need a gentle, loving break.

“Macy’s tail is wagging as she gets all the love she can handle. Nurses and floor staff will take her behind the floor desk and love on her,” Huntoon said. “Many know her by name. Staff gets as much or more from our visits as the patients.”

“As we walk the halls smiles appear on staff and visitor faces as they approach us. Many ask to pet her. Visitors will often ask me to go to a loved one’s room when they learn why we are there,” Huntoon continued. “Waiting rooms are full of tired, bored and nervous people. We work those really hard. You can see people kind of waiting their turn as Macy works the room from person to person. Many are happy for the diversion.”

Huntoon said that he and Macy take a little different approach with children, though.

“When we see kids, I put Macy in a down stay and let the kids pet her and brush her with some small brushes I keep in Macy’s vest,” he said. “Parents just love it and start taking pictures of their kids with Macy. THR supplies us with trading cards for our dogs so I pass out pictures and we have a grand time.”

In addition to Macy and Rick, Phoebe, a comfort dog who is part of Lutheran Church Charities’ K-9 Comfort Dog program, also regularly visits Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth and Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest.

“There is very solid evidence for the benefits of animal participation in promoting health — for patients, their families and for health care providers,” said Sue Shields, director of cancer services at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth. “Phoebe and her handlers bring joy and comfort to everyone here. She truly is ‘gentle and humble in heart’ and provides rest for our souls.”

Comfort dogs from the Lutheran Church Charities program also visited mourners at the memorial that was set up outside the Dallas Police Department headquarters after the tragic shootings of five officers.


  • Retha Whittle says:

    Jesse and Breezy visit Texas Health Denton each week and the reaction to their visits from patients, their families and our visitors is a wonderful thing to watch. I am a volunteer and one of my favorite duties is to visit patient’s rooms the day before their visit to make “appointments” for those who wish a visit from Jesse or Breezy. I hear comments like “that would be fantastic” and “please ask her to stop in” from both patients and families. While in our lobby everyone wants to love and pet them and they enjoy it at much as our visitors and staff. This is a wonderful program and should be offered in every hospital.

  • magi says:

    Love dogs! they are truly a blessing for all of us!! I wish you can go with Phoebe and the others to nursing homes, also. You are doing a great job everywhere you go, help people of all ages and stages of their sicknesses or disabilities to feel better at least for few minutes, that means so much! Thank you, and God Bless you and all these wonderful creatures, “man’s best friends”!

  • Terri Olney says:

    I hug my dear old Golden Retriever rescue multiple times a day. Life is so much richer with dogs in it. They heal us in so many ways.

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