Pet, Health Benefits of Having a (cont.)

By the way, about 60 percent or so of people, even people not ill, have their dog in the bedroom and about half of them, if not more, have the dog in bed.

Both of our dogs sleep with us. However, I have to say, the little beagle takes up way more space than my husband, my big dog and me combined.

My dog does her "yoga" stretching every morning. Then she is really perky and playful until she gets breakfast. She puts on quite a show. It really makes my morning. After she eats, she is so much calmer. I find that if I don't get this play time with her, my day isn't just as good. Her mood really affects my mood.

The relationship we have with our dogs is a pack-like relationship and our moods influence each other, perhaps it's a good time to note studies have shown that when you interact and pet a dog, you and the dog relax and have a drop in blood pressure or heart rate. There's real interactions, both physically and psychologically. That's part of the joy of the relationship.

Is there any evidence that a particular type of pet is better than another?

It's the relationship and what you bring to it that's important. About 60-62 percent of people have some companion animals inside. Dogs and cats being the most common, but large numbers of people have fish, birds, and small pocket pets that include gerbils, hamsters, rabbits and rats.

Younger people seem to be more able to relate to even smaller animals and they provide all the interaction. Older people tend to prefer animals that are more predictably interactive like dogs, cats and birds.

Many people find great comfort in taking care of fish and indeed, fish tanks are becoming more and more common in settings where people might be stressed, like dentists' and doctors' offices.

"Petting a dog drops your blood pressure, so does watching a fish tank."

Just as petting a dog drops your blood pressure, so does watching a fish tank, and it is so relaxing that we've shown it even helps people who are about to go for dental surgery. We use that population because they are predictably very stressed and welcome anything to help with that stress. The tanks have an additional advantage of allowing people in the waiting room to interact. You cannot talk to someone who is reading a magazine, but it is perfectly acceptable to share the experience of watching fish in the tank. So the shared opportunity of watching the fish is less stressful.

Different animals provide different kinds of interactions, so there is no one perfect pet, except the one that is perfect for you.

What about larger animals that can't live in the home -- like horses? What health benefits do they provide?

Many people talk about the therapeutic use of animals, and the animal that probably has the longest history in therapeutic settings is the horse. Throughout Europe and now North America, there are many therapeutic horseback riding programs.

Therapeutic horseback riding provides physical therapy often for younger people, and also motivates younger people to do their therapy. The child with special needs on top of a horse is now somewhat equal to other children and can enjoy much or the pleasures of motion and competition and care of animals.

Actually one of the earliest documented uses of animals in therapy in the US was when World War II pilots were brought home and hospitals often used farm animals to get these veterans out of bed to give them a focus of something to care for and to get their mind off the horrors of war.

And horseback riding is a wonderful exercise. Your management of the horse requires lots of good control over your own body, which means lots of exercise of muscles. And of course it gets you outside, encourages interaction with other people, and is therefore incredibly mentally stimulating, as well.

We are all familiar with seeing eye dogs. In what other ways are dogs being used as service animals? And what other animals are providing special services to humans?

There is an ever increasing need for animals to help people with special needs. Dogs especially are being trained to help people with hearing deficits, which is an ever-growing problem. Also, people are living longer and longer, and any breed of dog can be trained to help a person feel more secure, knowing that they will be alerted to a telephone call, door ring, or fire alarm.

There is an ever-growing use of dogs to help wheelchair users and people with physical deficits. More and more people are training dogs for that service, with one particularly interesting one in Indiana, where female prisoners train dogs for wheelchair users.

In this way, not only are the wheelchair users benefiting from the experience, but the inmates incarceration is more humane and might even provide job opportunities if they are released. Dogs for wheelchair users are used mostly to retrieve things and to help people get in and out of the wheelchair and sometimes to assist with movement.

Service dogs are often chosen for their size and not particular breed. We are seeing more use of Labrador retrievers and mixed-breed dogs with the right size, temperament and health for the job. Smaller breeds like beagles and Chihuahuas have been used, and I know of a service-certified Papillon, used in prison settings in the psychology area.

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