From the Archives: Fall 2005 Issue of Lupus Now Magazine
Pet Power! Taking care of an animal can bring joy, better health
by Phyllis McIntosh
Goliath always knew when I wasn't feeling well," Ranit Shriky of Springfield, NJ, a self-described workaholic, says of her beloved English Rottweiler. "Sometimes I'd come home at night so tired that I'd just crash on the floor, and he would come over and lick my face until I'd get up."
Goliath died last spring, but "when he got sick, no matter how bad he felt, he would still come to me," Shriky says.
Despite complications from lupus that include joint pain, fatigue, kidney damage, and a blood clotting disorder, Shriky works long hours and travels extensively as a lupus research administrator for two hospitals. Recalling how she would walk Goliath even though she was hurting after a long day at work, Shriky says, "For a moment you're not thinking about the fact that you're in pain. You're thinking about what he needs."
As far back as 1860, Florence Nightingale noted that "a small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick." In the past 25 years, scientific studies have documented the wisdom of her statement. Simply petting or talking to an animal, for example, can lower blood pressure and heart rate. Pet owners also have lower levels of cholesterol and triglycerides and, regardless of whether they have chronic health problems, tend to visit doctors less often. One study showed that pet owners recovering from heart attacks were more likely to be alive one year later that those with no animals. For people with chronic illness, pets provide a source of humor, a distraction from discomfort, and an opportunity for interaction with other people, says Alan Beck, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine.
"Animals also give us an easy way to be nurturers," Beck adds. He cites studies from England of older women who actually suffered hypothermia rather than pay to keep their houses warmer-until they were given parakeets as pets. "Of course they wouldn't let their little birds get cold," he says.
Pets provide psychological support as well. For example, "Dogs are very sensitive when a member of the pack is not doing well, so when you're having a bad day, they lie quietly on your bed and are supportive in their own way," Beck says.
Before Moving into Pethood
If you are thinking of joining the world of happy, healthier pet owners, be realistic about what you can handle, Beck advises. If you aren't sure you can manage to walk a large dog several times a day, opt for a cat or a small dog that can get a lot of its exercise indoors. If you're thinking of adding a dog or cat to your household it's also important to read about all the different breeds and their matching personalities -- just to see which one best fits your lifestyle. Even better, adopt an older animal from a shelter or sanctuary: you'll have the advantages of getting a pet used to being part of a family, and of providing a haven for a homeless animal. And be sure to have backup support from family or friends for those days when you simply cannot tend to your pet.
If you are thinking of giving a pet as a gift to someone with a chronic illness, "it shouldn't be a surprise," Beck emphasizes. Let the recipient choose his or her own animal. And as the giver, you should make a commitment to help care for the pet when necessary.
But not everyone is ready for the responsibility that comes with owning a pet. If owning a pet doesn't fit your lifestyle, "think about visiting people who have animals, or put up a bird feeder, which doesn't require much maintenance," Beck suggests. "Remember that contact with animals comes in many forms."