The Pet Prescription
See Spot run. Then see Spot lower your blood pressure and boost your immunity. Really
FALLS CHURCH, VA. --"Can I pet your dog?" asks Suzi Zarkin, leaning over a rangy yellow Labrador, who picks up his square head at the sound of her voice. "Sure. His name is Miles," says Leslie Horton. A typical street-corner conversation, but this is no street. It's the oncology floor at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia.
Zarkin, 26, of the nearby city of Alexandria, confers quietly with Horton and then the trio sets off on a journey down the hall toward a window, Zarkin gripping the stiff handle of Miles's harness. "OK, Miles, we're almost there, almost there," Zarkin says. It's her third day in the hospital; she's battling cancer in her spine. "My right leg is pretty much paralyzed from the knee down. Miles was helping me keep steady. If I have a dog to walk, and my cane, too, I can go forever. I love the dogs that come up here. It just makes me feel better."
That means more than just an emotional boost. The unconditional support shown by a pet inspires physical benefits, too, says Horton, who directs the hospital's animal-assisted therapy program, one of the largest in the country. "We have patients who have trouble walking down one hallway, but when we put them next to a dog, they do two hallways or four." More exercise leads to more strength, shorter hospital stays, and faster recoveries. And not just at Inova Fairfax. A few weeks ago, researchers at University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center reported that heart-failure patients had better heart function after a bedside visit from a dog. Pet owners are also more likely to survive a heart attack than non-pet owners, regardless of the severity of disease. And caring for animals reduces antisocial behavior in troubled teens and children. Discoveries such as these have inspired a boom in animal-assisted therapy, in which animals, under the supervision of a physical therapist, nurse, or other professional, work to help patients achieve specific rehabilitation goals.
Pet chemistry. But before people start to gush about pets as cure-alls--and there are plenty of willing gushers--experts caution that animal therapy has limits. "Look, a visit from a dog is not a panacea," says Erika Friedmann, a biologist at the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore who studies human-animal interactions. Research hasn't shown miracles, and some studies haven't shown any advantage at all.
And to clear up one point quickly for the owners of America's 90-odd million cats: Most animal-assisted therapy uses dogs. It's not that cats can't help, but more people are allergic to them. And every time they work in hospitals, therapy animals have to get a bath and have their teeth brushed. It's hard to find a cat that will put up with that.
Pet benefits may begin with changes in body chemistry. One study showed that a short pet visit increased levels of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, while levels of cortisol, a stress and arousal hormone, dropped. "A chronic state of arousal isn't healthy," says Friedmann. "It causes hypertension, and it has been implicated in diabetes, asthma, and various gastrointestinal disorders. Part of the arousal response is to turn off the immune system, so you are breaking down instead of healing yourself." But a pet, she says, seems to blunt this reaction.