the PET prescription Animals are good for what ails you Susan Goodman

September 14, 1993|By Susan Goodman | Susan Goodman,Contributing Writer

"Watch your diet, get plenty of exercise, don't smoke and pet your dog every day." If your doctor gave you this advice on your next visit, you'd probably think he was crazy.

But research is just beginning to discover the mysterious healing powers of our nation's 55 million dogs, 52 million cats and countless birds, fish, rabbits, hamsters and other pets. A wagging tail and a warm nose may be the best medicine there is.

A furry friend can even save your life. A pioneering study done several years ago by Aaron Katcher, now a professor emeritus of veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, and several colleagues from the Philadelphia University looked at the social factors that affect the recovery of heart attack patients. The surprising results showed that having a pet was the strongest social predictor of survival, even over factors such as having a supportive spouse. Whereas only two-thirds of those without pets survived the first year and at the study, a whopping 94 percent of the animal owners were still happily walking their dogs or feeding their goldfish.

Animals may even keep their owners from getting sick in the first place. "For those people who value animals, pets can reduce tension and anxiety," says Alan Beck, the former director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. Several studies conducted by Mr. Beck and Dr. Katcher have shown that people relax in the presence of pets. They smile more, communicated better, act happier and get more regular exercise. All of these factors are important ingredients in the recipe for improved health.

A pet's effect goes straight to the heart. Experiments reveal that a person's blood pressure stays level or decreases when interacting with an animal. In fact, just gazing at a tank of tropical fish or knowing that a dog is lying in the corner of a room has the same soothing effect.

Ironically, blood pressure tends to rise during conversations with human beings.

Why do pets seem to have this healing touch, an ability that many doctors would envy? Perhaps American humorist Josh Billings answered for all animals when he said that a dog is "the only thing on this earth that loves you more than he loves himself."

Dr. William F. McCulloch, formerly the director of the Center for Comparative Medicine at Texas A&M University, agrees.

"You couldn't ask for a better friend," Dr. McCulloch says. "An animal is loyal, open and always ready to welcome you."

Pets may also be more reliable friends than many humans are. "A pet confirms the old adage that love is blind," says Dr. McCulloch. "He doesn't care if you're overweight or unattractive -- he loves you exactly as you are."

That's probably why a lot of pet owners like to confide in their animals.

"We feel we can reveal our feelings and know that our secrets are safe," says Dr. McCulloch. Studies have shown that dogs are very attentive to their owners and maintain a lot of eye contact, which makes them especially sympathetic listeners. According to Dr. Katcher's study, 98 percent of dog owners talk to their pets, and 75 percent feel that their dogs can understand their moods and feelings.

Pets can also be a humorous distraction from the daily grind, notes Mr. Beck. "They are court jesters whose antics can always provoke a smile. And we can feel comfortable laughing at them as well."

Just as pets care about their owners, they also give their owners someone to care about in return. The regular cycle of a pet's care can bring structure and a sense of purpose to a person's life.

The chance to feel needed and nurturing saves many people from loneliness and despair. Just ask the staffs of the countless health care facilities across the United States that have animals on the premises or have them brought in for regular visits.

As well as being good friends themselves, pets also help their owners meet new friends, too. People are drawn to pet owners, according to Randall Lockwood, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in Long Island, N.Y. Dr. Lockwood showed subjects pairs of pictures of people identical except for the presence or absence of an animal. He then asked the subjects to make up stories about what they saw.

Dr. Lockwood found that the people with animals were portrayed as being more friendly, intelligent, industrious and happy.

Pets, of course, are not the panacea for all of life's problems. Nor can every person benefit from owning an animal. "Only those benefit who perceive this bond as a valuable one," says Mr. Beck.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

PICKING A PET

When trying to choose a pet for yourself, remember to pick one that matches your needs and lifestyle.

* First, read up on the kind of animal you're considering, noting its physical and emotional needs. Sure, you'd love a big golden retriever, but will he be happy in your cramped apartment? A rabbit may be better suited to apartment life, and they can be litter-box trained, too.

* Try to match the characteristics of the breed with your personality. If it's love and affection you crave, a canine is probably a good choice. But if you'd rather have a more independent creature, a cat might be better choice.

* If space is your main consideration, a hamster, fish or turtle might do the trick. Talk to a veterinarian and to other pet owners in similar situations.

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