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Therapy Dogs and the Health Benefits of Owning a Pet

Pets can have a positive effect on the health of their human companions. Whether you have a dog that needs walking or bend down to scoop up your cat for a snuggle, a pet can help you become more physically active. Studies show that people with pets have reduced levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides.

Companion animals also can benefit their humans’ mental health. Pets offer affection and entertainment and bring joy and mental stimulation. They can relieve loneliness through their own presence, and walking a pet provides opportunity for social connection and speaking with others.

Adopting a Pet

If you’re thinking of bringing a pet into your life, consider adopting an older animal or one from a shelter. Most are house-broken and may have learned basic commands for obedience, saving you the time and effort of training. Older animals may be better behaved or have less energy than younger ones. And adopting a shelter animal can give you a sense of purpose.

It’s important to weigh the benefits of bringing a pet into your or your loved one’s life against any physical limitations and lifestyle habits. If you travel frequently, work or volunteer outside the home, or if medical care keeps you away from home for long periods, owning a pet may not be fair to either of you.

Therapy Dogs and Other Alternatives to Pet Ownership

If you or a loved one has an illness that limits your ability to care for a pet, you can still enjoy the company and health benefits that a companion animal provides.

The easiest way is to “borrow” a friend’s or family member’s pet. You’ll want to approach someone whose pet you know and are comfortable with, and make sure the pet doesn’t get too excited in new surroundings. Consider inviting a neighbor and her dog over for a visit, or offer to pet-sit if you aren’t able to bring a dog or cat into your home.

You could also line up a specially trained therapy dog. VNSNY works with the Good Dog Foundation to bring dogs (and their owners) into patients’ homes, and those involved with the program say that the connections between patients and animals can be amazing. One volunteer with the program says, “We’ve seen people who have Alzheimer’s speak coherent sentences for the first time in months in the presence of a dog. A patient can come alive in ways that the family hasn’t seen in months, or even years. The smell or feel of a dog can invoke happy memories—we’ve seen moments that are really special.”

Connecting Again to the World

Pets also provide a social connection. When you take your pet for a walk, you have the opportunity to speak with others.

If you already own a pet but an illness prevents you from caring for it, an agency such as PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) can provide assistance that allows you to keep a beloved companion. PAWS volunteers walk dogs, help to maintain litter boxes, and feed and brush your pet. They can also arrange to pick up pet supplies for people who are homebound or have trouble carrying heavy bags or cans.