By Dr. Tristi Muir
Last year, David was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This neurodegenerative disease not only made David’s movements rigid and tremulous, it has robbed him of his independence and his freedom.
He had been a very independent man for 83 years when suddenly, he found himself living with his physician daughter Robyn and her busy family (including David’s 1-year old grandson).
Recognizing that this must be a very traumatic change of life for her father, Robyn asked, “Dad, is there anything we can do for you?” David immediately answered, “Get me a dog!”
Together, they saw every dog at the Galveston Island Humane Society. After spending time with David, one of the humane society workers knew that the Chihuahua in the back of the facility would be the perfect dog for David. It was love at first sight.
David brought Lt. Taco home in his jacket, with his black and tan head popping out at the top of the zipper. Lt. Taco has stayed glued to David’s side since joining the family, as if he intuitively understood that was his job.
When David thinks about how Lt. Taco has changed his life, David shares, “He gave me an outlet for emotions. He helps me relieve tension.”
He’s right. Pet owners have lower blood pressure, less risk of heart disease and lower anxiety. Research has shown that having a pet can lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke by almost 50 percent. Pets can also improve recovery from strokes. Petting an animal releases oxytocin (the same bonding hormone released with breast-feeding) resulting in greater love and trust.
Volunteer organizations have long recognized the healing power of pets and take them into hospitals, hospices, residential care homes and special needs schools to take advantage of these tremendous physiological and psychological benefits.
The health benefits of pet ownership are not exclusive to the elderly population. Children who live with dogs or cats in their early years have lower incidence of asthma, hay-fever or animal-related allergies. They also function better emotionally and have higher levels of self-esteem than children who grow up without pets. Throughout life, dogs can also be a great excuse to get more exercise and further improve your health.
Animals serve as nonjudgmental, uncomplicated listeners. A common mistake that people make after a crisis is feeling obligated to give advice or solve that person’s problem. What people going through a tragedy often need is the opportunity to express themselves.
The tragedy that impacted Sandy Hook Elementary School last year in Newtown, Conn., left children and adults shaken to their core. Nine therapy dogs were brought in to aid in healing. While petting the dogs, children could tell their stories of fear and terror, initiating the grieving process with a well-trained therapist lending a furry ear (or two).
David recently was diagnosed with lymphoma. The stress and anxiety of the diagnosis of cancer was not as frightening with Lt. Taco by David’s side. Fortunately, David’s prognosis is excellent. David has found evenings to be his favorite time of day. Lt. Taco is there to “help slow down the day.”
Physicians can take pointers from our furry friends. When people come into a doctor’s office for care, an important part of that care is to take time to listen and be by our patients’ side no matter what they are facing.
Dr. Tristi Muir is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Texas Medical Branch and the director of the UTMB Pelvic Health and Continence Center at Victory Lakes.