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Dogs and Your Health

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K-9 Therapy Helping People in Gainesville Live Better Lives

“Who else comes running up when you
enter the door like you are the greatest person ever? It’s great to experience such unconditional love,” says Linda McCollough, DVM. Her love for animals led her to a career as a veterinarian and now owner of the Haile Animal Clinic, and to the establishment of the non-profit organization Haile’s Angels Pet Rescue. Since 1995, the rescue program has been committed to matching abandoned pets with their forever family.

Haile’s Angels also provides a novel opportunity for pets and humans to help heal each other before adoption occurs. “Many rescue dogs need to be retrained and they need people to spend time with them daily,” McCollough says. “Using people experiencing PTSD or depression to help retrain them provides something else for them focus on. By working with the dog, they experience a feeling of worth and a sense of accomplishment by helping the animal.”

Our interactions with animals began more than 500,000 years ago, primarily as a prey versus prey relationship. But the domestication of animals some 15,000 years ago led to the use of animals in a variety of ways such as for transportation, to help plow the fields and to protect us from threats. Now, it is estimated more than 86 million households have some type of pet and many are registered to meet special needs for their human companions. 
 A service animal, for example, is trained
 to perform a task that assists people with 
a disability or a medical condition while a registered therapy pet provides emotional and psychological support.

A variety of organizations nationwide focus on pets and the various ways they can
 help humans. For example, there’s Planned Parrothood, the National Association of Certified Professionals of Equine Therapy and Therapy Dogs International to name a few.

Through her autistic son and her mother’s need for companionship, McCollough experienced the therapeutic benefits of owning a pet first-hand.
“I have seen a number
 of ways dogs can have 
a positive impact physically 
and mentally,” she says. “My son, 
for example, has autism and when he was young he connected with our dogs, which helped bring him out of his autistic world.”

McCollough’s mother has also benefitted from having a pet. She says her mother protested at first when she was given a rescue dog
but now the pet provides important social connections and companionship. “The dog goes everywhere with her. For 10 years, she never walked the neighborhood she lives in and now she is out with the dog all of the time. In general, pets can have a very positive effect in many ways,” McCollough says.

Photo: Footstone Photography

Seeing-eye dogs for example, have long been recognized for the type of service they provide. However, dogs are now being trained to help with medical conditions such as detecting seizures in advance and warning people who have diabetes that their blood sugar level is becoming dangerously low.

In addition, there is evidence that pets can have a positive impact on reducing blood pressure and helping to regulate a person’s heart rate. Since the 1980s, research has suggested that heart attack patients who owned pets might live longer than those who don’t and that there may be a correlation between petting your beloved pet and reducing your blood pressure.

The positive effects pets might have on human health and well-being go back further than three decades. In the 1800s, Florence Nightingale, who is considered the founder of modern nursing, wrote in her book “Notes on Nursing” that small pets helped reduce anxiety in children and adults living in psychiatric institutions. In the 1930s, Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, would have his chow Jofi accompany him during patient sessions because the dog’s presence seemed to have a calming effect on Freud’s patients.

“The human, canine bond is a real thing and can affect a person’s healing process,” says Pat Bellis, a Gainesville pet therapy tester and observer with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. “They can help reduce anxiety and calm patients and their loved ones, as well as the staff who work with the people in crisis.” Bellis has two therapy dogs, Milo and Guy Noir. She and her canine companions are a common site at Shands at UF Health, bringing smiles to patients receiving treatment there.

Both dogs are part of the Shands at UF Health Pet Visitations program, which has
 been generating patient smiles since the
 90s. Currently, about 20 dogs are enrolled in the program. Director Lindsay Krieg sees the positive impact the program has daily. “We often have patients here for extended periods of time that are missing their dogs back home,” she says. “A visit from a pet therapy dog allows for a change in their daily routine and makes them feel closer to their own pet back home. “Even if the patient doesn’t have a pet at home, a visit from a pet therapy dog may help them recall a fond memory of a time when they did have a pet or a time when they weren’t ill,” she says. “Just seeing a dog in a hospital is unexpected helps elevate the mood of everyone, even staff and visitors.”

All dogs are registered with national pet therapy program and have been approved to come
 into the hospital setting, Krieg says. Owners are registered hospital volunteers. “A pet therapy dog provides a friendly face and some love, no matter what else the patient has to deal with during their hospital stay,” she says. Visits can last from a minute to 15 minutes or more. “I think there are some visits that you can tell for the patient that it means an incredible amount to them,” says Krieg. Dogs, the only pet species currently allowed, make visits throughout the facility including the children’s hospital, the pediatric and cardiac units and according to Krieg they really go just about anywhere, stopping along the way to visit staff and people in the waiting room. Patients can even call to request a visit.

So what physically happens when we pet Fido or cuddle with Fifi that makes us smile? Studies show that after a few minutes of compassionate pet interaction, endorphins and other feel good hormones are produced. Interestingly, these are the same hormones present during childbirth and lactation. Medical experts agree these substances are critical in the formation of the bond between mother and child, and in this instance, in forging a therapeutic relationship between pets and their human companions.

A University of Missouri-Columbia study suggests that this hormonal change, which involves surges in serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, helps people cope with depression and certain stress-related disorders. In this study, researchers checked blood samples of both dog owners with their pets and non-dog owners during a specific time span, monitoring blood pressure every five minutes. The dog’s blood pressure dropped as soon as they were petted. Blood pressure in the human study participants dropped by 10 percent about 15 to 30 minutes after they began petting their dog. However, the study reports, this worked only when pet owner’s interacted with their own pet versus an unfamiliar animal.

The bond between humans and animals is more than half a million years old. Throughout time, the relationship has evolved and is likely to continue to change as research continues. McCollough, however, needs no proof that
pets have a therapeutic effect on humans. “Being in the medical field, I like to help fix things,” she says. “I am a total believer that pet therapy, even just owning a pet, can make a big difference with depression and help older or lonely people feel they are connected.”