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North Hills Monthly

Pets Can Help You Live a Healthier Life

Jan 29, 2016 05:23PM ● By Erica Cebzanov
If you made a New Year’s resolution to improve your health, spending time with your four-legged friend may help you achieve your goal.

According to the article, Owning a Pet May Protect You From Heart Disease, which was published by the American Heart Association in August, pet owners may be able to reduce their cardiovascular disease risk by exercising more with their pets. The report added that pets also play a role in providing social support to their owners, which is an important factor in helping them stick with a new habit or in adopting a new healthy behavior.

Amy Martello, Animal Friends’ therapeutic services coordinator, has seen this first-hand. She previously worked as a physical therapist at a nursing home, where she noticed that therapy dogs motivated patients. “They would only be able to pet the dogs if they got up and walked over to them, or used their weaker arms to pet them,” she said. “This way, the dogs not only brightened their moods and made them smile, but also helped them to reach their therapeutic goals.”

Martello added that animals may also reduce patients’ chronic pain, citing findings from a 2012 University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study that measured pain relief in fibromyalgia patients who spent time with a therapy dog.

According to Animal Rescue League Medical Director Donna Hughes, VMD, Ph.D, pets have helped people with seizure disorders and Parkinson’s disease. “The helper dogs assist them with walking by nudging them to keep them moving and by breaking their falls,” she explained.

And pets don’t just make a difference in people’s physical health. “Dogs and cats are unique, in a way, because they speak to our capacity to belong and to love another being,” said Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates co-owner Don Laird, MS, LPC, NCC. “Therapy dogs work really well with people experiencing excessive depression or anxiety.”

Laird added that pets assist people who have issues connecting with or verbalizing their feelings. “A child can connect with a dog and then talk about the animal’s feelings. Then, we can connect with the child by saying, ‘What happens when you get happy or excited or sad?’”

Martello shared a story about an Animal Friends volunteer who took her therapy dog to visit a 5-year-old recovering from brain surgery. Even though the girl could not verbalize her pleasure, she smiled and squealed when touching the dog, which brought her grandmother to tears. Both Martello and Hughes added that petting animals provides stress relief, while the daily routine of caring for a pet prevents isolation.

Tracey Davis, MA, LPC, with a friend
Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates co-owner Tracey Davis, MA, LPC, is currently training her beagle-terrier mix at Misty Pines for future pet therapy work. “Jax is a pretty big hit; he stays in the reception area and occasionally greets clients,” said Laird. “He isn’t certified to do any work yet, but he’s more of a presence here than anything else.”

In 2013, Animal Friends received a grant from UPMC to start its own certification program, and Therapets was born. “Animal Friends has always placed a tremendous emphasis on the human-animal bond, and conducting pet therapy visits was one way to share that connection outside our walls,” explained Martello. “Not all dogs are suitable for therapy work, so we require them to have an initial evaluation and pass a certification exam.”

Animal Friends also evaluates rabbits and cats for volunteer therapy positions and currently boasts 142 Therapet teams visiting more than 200 sites, including hospitals, senior-living facilities and schools. Moreover, Martello coordinates Animal Afternoon sessions, during which small groups tour the shelter, enjoy snacks and interact with a therapy dog. The shelter also hosts an annual Memorial Day weekend Sing-a-long with Animals, featuring therapy pets.

Despite pet ownership’s health benefits, Hughes emphasized the importance of carefully considering the responsibilities that pet adoption entails: “With owning an animal, the animal has certain needs you need to meet; it’s not going to fly if you go into the relationship solely looking for what you can get out of it,” she said.