DR. HOOK- Pet therapy: Dogs, horses help healing

"Woof, woof!"

"Lassie, what is wrong?"

"Woof, woof, woof!" 

"Oh, dear! Did Timmy fall in the well?"


The publicity for the movie Benji says he shows more emotion than many actors. (I believe that. Look at Vin Diesel.) That cute mutt (not cuter than my beagle/fox hound, Maggie Moo) touched the hearts of kids and adults alike.  

I remember in 1979 when Siskel & Ebert raved about The Black Stallion, I thought to myself– a horse movie? That's so National Velvet– but without Liz Taylor! How could it be good? Well, it was. That horse even killed a cobra to save the little boy. And so besides being our best friends, can animals improve our health?

First of all, I need to make something clear: in general Korean people do not eat dogs. In fact, I never even heard of Koreans eating dog until I was in my first year of medical school. Someone gave me a cartoon clipping saying, Korean Cookbook: 101 Ways to Wok Your Dog. 

I didn't get the joke for two reasons. First, Koreans don't use a wok. Second, my family always had a dog, and we never discussed eating her. Horrified, I called my mother long-distance. She told me that during WWII and the Korean War, when there was a shortage of food, some dogs were killed and eaten. When I was in Korea, dog chow was strictly Purina, not on the human menu. So are we clear?

Dogs aren't the only animals kept as pets, but they (and cats) are the most common. New York Times bestseller Marley & Me is about a dog. Rin Tin Tin has his own fan club. It can even rain "cats and dogs."

Dogs are used in "pet therapy" because they increase social interaction, provide emotional comfort, decrease anxiety and depression, improve self-esteem, and foster a sense of independence. For example, the visually impaired use seeing eye dogs. If someone has a stroke and cannot speak well, a dog can provide an environment of nonverbal communication that is acceptable and relaxed. If the dog moves to the weaker side of the stroke patient, the patient is more likely to try to use that weak arm and hand to pet the dog.

Psychotherapy for children can be enhanced with animals like horses. The Happy Horse Farm showed how riding and caring for horses helps children with psychiatric issues. (And Mr. Ed didn't need to be there to psychoanalyze them.)  Our area has a couple of equine centers that help people with brain injury, strokes, and other disabilities increase balance, strength, and coordination.

Dogs and cats sometimes live in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Alzheimer's Care Quarterly notes in 2005 that pet therapy calms agitated patients as well as gives joy. People with pets tend to live longer than those without pets. 

One study even showed that ICU patients who owned pets survived longer than those without pets. City people without pets tend to have more allergies than those with pets (desensitization). When I was a medical student, I had a patient who wanted to go home only to be with her dog— never mind her husband.

Petting a dog can lower your pulse and blood pressure. Walking your dog can lower your cholesterol and strengthen your heart. Playing with your cat can reduce stress. Cleaning your horse gives you a sense of responsibility.

Even in my office, my doggy stays with me. If patients walk by my door, they usually start cooing and canoodling with her. Maggie Moo really brings a lot of joy and good energy to our office. So much for pups having a ruff life.