The Power of Animals: How Pets Help Patients Cope

Gael and her dog Gizmo

Gael and her dog Gizmo

People cope with challenging situations differently. For PH patients and caregivers, pets are an important part of coping with illness. This summer PHA asked the PH community to share pet stories with us online, and here is some of what we found.

Statistics show pets are natural stress relievers and mood enhancers. Just watching a fish or a dog can make a person feel less anxious and stressed. The body actually goes through physiological changes. WebMD states that “the level of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, is lowered. And the production of the chemical associated with well-being is increased.”

Alan Beck, PhD, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, says that for people with chronic illness, pets provide a source of humor, a distraction from discomfort and an opportunity for interaction with other people. While with their animals, patients aren’t thinking about PH, but about their pets.

David Grady, who has PH, says his dog Samantha’s wonderful disposition brings a smile to his face whenever he comes home: “I don’t have time to think of [my] PH because of the wonderful time we spend together.”

Many patients find that their pets help them fight depression. Geal Goldbeck says her dog Gizmo “has been my rock when I was tipping over to a dark side and is always there to lick up my tears when I am feeling down.” Dr. Beck, the Perdue vet, says, “Dogs are sensitive when a member of the pack is not doing well, so when you’re having a bad day, they lie quietly on your bed and are supportive in their own way.”

PH patient Nicole Hedgepeth notices this in her bulldog Tank. She says, “He can sense when I’m not feeling well and then will never leave my side. He’s my ‘fur child,’ my shoulder to cry on and listens without judgment or giving his opinion. He is my biggest cheerleader and trusted friend.”

Nicole and her dog Tank

Nicole and her dog Tank

Pets are also great for patients because they need our companionship as much as we need theirs. Lynn Bastian, who has two cats – Phinehas and Sophia – says, “My cats offer me not only physical comfort (purring and cuddling), but mental comfort as well. Sophia sleeps with me and likes to sleep on or next to my pump sometimes. I think she thinks it is purring at her. Pets offer unconditional love. They don’t judge me when I’m having a bad day. People sometimes think they need to fix you. Cats just love you!”

Many pets, such as dogs or horses, help their owners get exercise. PH patient Mary Ann Cheng says her dog Skippy “takes me on walks of at least one or two miles daily. In cold weather (below 18 degrees), we climb 10 flights of stairs indoors. My six-minute walk test distance gets longer with each test. At my last appointment, my PH doctor told me, ‘Definitely keep the dog!'”

Pets also help support families and caregivers. When Teresa Brown’s mother passed away, Teresa found that having her dog Buddy helped her move forward. Teresa says, “After being my mother’s caregiver for six and a half years, I would be lost without someone, or in this case something, depending on me.”

You can find a pet that fits your lifestyle. Or if you can’t adopt your own pet, you can volunteer at a local shelter. Visit the Humane Society of the United States or contact a local shelter to find volunteer opportunities near you. To read all of the coping stories about pets our community has shared this summer, visit our Pinterest page.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2013 Pathlight.