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Education > The Fido Factor

"Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole." Roger A. Caras

"I have studied many philosophers and many cats. The wisdom of cats is infinitely superior." Hippolyte Taine

In the late 1940s, Smoky, a Yorkshire terrier and war hero, unintentionally founded the practice known as “animal-assisted therapy.” Brought to the hospital to comfort her owner, Corporal William Wynne, Smoky soon proved to placate the pains of more than one wounded soldier. Among them, Dr. Charles Mayo (founder of the Mayo Clinic) noticed the powerful effect the little dog had on the men around him and took Smoky on his rounds for the next twelve years. And now, almost seventy years later, pets have been used to improve patients’ motor skills, social skills, self-esteem, balance, vocabulary, and memory. Pets are also used to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and depressive disorders. These benefits are not limited to people exposed to specialized animal-assisted therapy. In 1992, an Austrian cardiologist discovered that people who owned pets had both lower cholesterol and blood pressure than those who did not.

What is it about pets that make their owners healthier, stronger, and happier? Perhaps, it’s simply the way they live their lives. Playing/working, giving/receiving, caring/being cared for; a pet’s daily routine is all about balance. How can pet owners benefit from following their lead?

1. Pets follow a set routine and enjoy it.
Feeling stuck in a rut? Think like a hamster! Hamsters do not dread their wheels, they delight in them. Pets thrive upon routine. “This is when we go for a walk.” “This is what I do when you say sit.” “This is when I get a treat.” They greet these everyday occurrences, no matter how predictable, with fresh doses of excitement. In exchange for your adherence to their rhythm of life, pet owners can benefit from both the structure of a daily routine (not to mention the cardio boosts) and the reminder to find joy in habits that may otherwise become old hat.

2. Pets play without competing.
Aggression, antagonism, strategy: these are things you will rarely encounter when playing with a pet. Pets are all about the game itself. There is no winning or losing involved, no rivalries to settle or need to impress. Animals play exuberantly, focused on the task at hand and the joy of the experience. This competition-free style of play brings pleasure to both participants. Laughter is a frequent byproduct of this kind of play — and new research has shown it may be something we inherited from our animal ancestors. According to Robert Provine, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and author of Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, “Laughter is literally the sound of play, with the primal ‘pant-pant’ — the labored breathing of physical play — becoming the human ‘ha-ha’.” It seems animals figured out the value of laugher and play before humans were even in existence.

3. Pets live to be touched, and love touching others.
From massages to hugs, countless research has shown touch lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Many people, however, experience anxiety when it comes to touching other people. Researchers Aaron Katcher and James Lynch found that petting dogs alleviates this anxiety while providing all the benefits of other kinds of touch. And it doesn’t matter who you are. Aaron Katcher and Alan Beck found that even the most macho of men would pet a dog with the same frequency and gestures as a woman. In return, the pets do their best to return the favor. Dogs will lie at your feet or share your chair and cats will curl up on your bed and nuzzle your nose. The non-threatening nurturing effects of petting have even been used to soothe and connect with victims of abuse, autism and Alzheimer’s.

4. Pets are action-oriented and response-driven.
A sedentary lifestyle is nearly impossible with a pet. According to Barbara Sternberg, PhD, “Pet owners are significantly more likely to report engaging in vigorous activity three or more times a week than non-owners.” This applies to pet owners of all ages. Sternberg continues, “Elderly dog owners spend an average of 1.4 hours per day outside with their dogs.” Anyone who has walked a dog knows they are constantly on the go but are ever present to their masters’ needs. Although it seems they may have their own agendas, domesticated animals are in tune with their owners’ emotions and health needs and will adjust their behavior accordingly. Horses can sense fear in their riders and will choose safer paths. Service dogs will step up to be the hands, ears, or eyes of their companions when they sense the need. And although it has yet to be proven that dogs can smell fear, it is widely believed by animal enthusiasts that pets understand when their masters are emotionally vulnerable.

5. Pets are social butterflies and expert listeners.
Research has shown that perhaps the greatest benefit of pet-ownership is simply communication. According to BestFriends.org, “dogs are a major factor in initiating conversations with passersby.” On sidewalks everyday, complete strangers will stop to pet a cute puppy and neighbors who would not usually talk will chat as their pets examine each other. Even when their animals are not present, owners bond around their common interest. They swap stories, pictures, and tips. However, the greatest communication likely occurs when no one else is around. Beck and Katcher found that 99% of pet owners talk to their pets, with “eighty percent saying they talked to their pets the same way they talked to people.” According to Sternberg, more than seventy percent of adolescents who own horses confide in them. And in a Swedish study, fifteen percent of elderly individuals claimed their pets were their most significant social contact.

Why the need to talk to animals? Without any effort on their part, animals are similar to client-centered therapists. According to Sternberg, they do not “try to direct the flow of conversation; they give no advice, and do not try to share their opinion with you. Most of all they do not judge.” Animals simply listen.

In the 1967 classic movie, Dr. Dolittle, everyone’s favorite veterinarian offers the human race a lofty prescription, musing what it would be like if we could “talk to the animals” and challenging people to try. What would they say to us? From the looks of the research above, they would simply tell us to take better care of ourselves while we care for them.

For pets, it’s all about giving and receiving, exercising and relaxing, listening and challenging. It is no wonder Dr. Dolittle’s favorite medicine has been picked up by modern medicine. According to Dr. Stephen T. Sinatra’s, Heartbreak and Heart Disease: A Mind/Body Prescription for Healing the Heart, some cardiologists prescribe pets just like medication for about fifteen percent of their heart patients. No referral, co-pay or medical history needed!

For more information on the health benefits of pet ownership, please visit Best Friends Animal Society: www.bestfriends.org.

For more information on pet adoption or to support animals in need, visit the American Humane Society: http://www.americanhumane.org/protecting-animals/adoption-pet-care/

Recommended Reading and Sources Cited:

Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship
By Alan Beck and Aaron Katcher

Heartbreak and Heart Disease: A Mind/Body Prescription for Healing the Heart
By Dr. Stephen T. Sinatra

Laughter: A Scientific Investigation
By Robert Provine

The Healing Power of Pets: Harnessing the Ability of Pets to Make and Keep People Happy
By Dr. Marty Becker

2010 New Perspectives. Permission to copy this article is granted provided the author is notified and the following bio information is included:

Kathleen Passanisi, PT, CSP, CPAE is an internationally recognized professional speaker, therapeutic humor expert, healthcare professional, and author. A proud member of the NSA Speaker Hall of Fame, she has spoken to bazillions of people about life balance, wellness, the power of perception, women’s issues, and the link that exists between humor and health. For more information on Kathleen’s presentations, books, SPARK magazine and products, please visit the New Perspectives website at www.kathleenpassanisi.com.

Annie Passanisi, co-creator of SPARK magazine, is a Chicago-based actor, singer, writer, marketer, and polka dot enthusiast. Her passion for applied positive psychology has led her to join her award-winning professional speaking mother on the platform. For more information, please visit

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