RX for Wellness: Get a Pet


Pet lovers know – and science agrees – animal companions benefit human health
By KL Snyder  |  Photography by Kelvin Andow

If laughter is the best medicine, then a pet is the primo prescription. “No one can speak of his pet without laughing,” says Mayo Clinic oncologist Ed Creagan, who speaks and writes extensively on the therapeutic powers of companion animals. 

Medical research confirms that the furry, feathered, and finned have a happy effect on the health and healing of humans. “The data are overwhelming that pets change the healing of body, mind and soul,” Creagan says.

The pet effect

Why it works is a mystery (and the animals aren’t telling), but the pet effect not only enhances wellness, it also delivers relief from an array of maladies. “You feel better when you’re with the dog or cat, Creagan says.” 

The pleasant company of animals soothes stress and anxiety. And no wonder: “When you stroke the cat, pet the dog, groom the horse, the feel-good hormones—oxytocin, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin—kick in and anxiety decreases.” Your blood pressure drops; your pulse rate slows. 

By setting those happy hormones surging, pets lighten symptoms of depression and give a sense of purpose that distracts from feelings of despair.  

At some nursing homes, resident cats bring amusement to resident humans. Fish and birds help, too. Dementia patients increase their caloric intake when they eat in the presence of an aquarium or aviary.

Dogs as fitness coaches

Dogs offer special perks, Creagan says. “The involvement of a canine improves cardiac rehab exercising, and heart attack victims with dogs have a far greater chance of being alive a year later than those without dogs.” 

And overall, dog owners get more exercise than the rest of the population. (While cats snooze, dogs want to play.)

Home to see Rex

The human-animal bond is so strong it gives even gravely ill people incentive to fight on. Creagan tells of a patient with advanced lung cancer and kidney and liver failure. When the man was admitted to the hospital, his medical team doubted he’d make it through the night. He told them, though, that he had to get home to see Rex. 

“We thought Rex was his son or partner,” says Creagan. “But, no. Rex was the patient’s German Shepherd-cross.” And, yes, the man did get home to see Rex.

ROFLOL pet tales

Creagan asks his patients if they have pets. If they do, he asks the pet’s name and enters it into the patient’s record. 

“Patients’ attitudes change when they talk about their pets,” he says. “All, even those struggling with advanced cancer, have some hilarious story to tell about their companion animals—the smartest dog in the world, or a cat that could run IBM, or the funniest horse ever. Invariably, out comes the smart phone with a picture of this remarkable animal. No wife or husband photo, no boss photo. Certainly no boss. There’s a joy when you whip out a cell phone and show a picture of a cat with a birthday hat on.”

The cease-fire

Pets can even halt hostilities, though the truce may be temporary. Creagan recalls a cancer patient going through a bitter divorce. “The only time the couple could speak civilly, the only time they could agree on anything, was when they talked about the dog—his food, his groomer, his daycare.”

Thank you, Snoopy, Tweety, Sylvester et al. 

Just how advantageous are animal companions to human health? Creagan puts it this way: “When a patient says he or she went to a shelter to rescue a pet, it’s really the pet that rescues the patient.” 

And if getting rescued isn’t enough, consider this bonus: “I’m convinced that pet owners are better-looking, smarter and more engaging.”

Credit the Mayo horse

It is appropriate that published data from Mayo Clinic recognize the health-related benefits of pets, says  Creagan. After all, a companion animal played a significant role in the medical center’s genesis. To wit: “William Worrall Mayo, the father of the Mayo brothers, made his rounds in a carriage drawn by a horse.”  

KL Snyder is a Rochester writer who wonders how animals accomplish their therapeutic results.