How My Pet Helped Me Heal
Health.com readers share their stories
Adriene Hughes calls her boyfriend's dog, Peso, her little "sleep assistant." While she was undergoing chemotherapy, he would sleep in the crook of her waist as she napped. "Just the sheer presence of his body next to mine would be enough to make me feel as if I was not alone," she says.
Pet owners know that their pets improve mood, but now studies are showing pets' power to heal. Recent research has linked dogs and cats to health benefits such as higher survival rates after illness, fewer visits to the doctor, and better physical and psychological well-being among the elderly.
"We've always known that pets make us feel good. We just didn't know they were good for us. Now we've gone from experiencing it to having a body of evidence," says Marty Becker, a veterinary contributor to Good Morning America and author of The Healing Power of Pets. Here are seven stories of how pets helped in the healing process.
Suky's "penetrating stare"
When Carol Klimentos first met her cockatiel, Suky, he was 6 weeks old. She nursed him on a dropperful of baby cereal until he could eat seeds. Now, at 21, it's Suky's turn to play nurse. After a recent foot surgery, Carol had to spend eight painful weeks in bed.
"Suky would sit on my cast and I could feel his body heat," she says. "That little bird fussed over me with his penetrating stare. He would holler to alert my husband whenever I moved or tried to get up. I finally could sleep!"
An Arabian stallion helped me through depression
Dawn McLean says she and Arabian stallion Creshendo "made an unlikely pair" when they met 20 years ago. Dawn was starting therapy, determined to beat her depression. Creshendo was aggressive and untrusting, the victim of abuse by a previous owner.
But when Dawn struggled with the therapy and was tempted to give up, it was the knowledge that Creshendo needed her care that kept her going. It took two years to overcome the depression. Today, Dawn lives happily in Arizona with her own horse ranch. "I am profoundly grateful to the fiery stallion who showed me how to live," she says. Creshendo died of liver disease three years ago, but his healing effect endures.
I got a dog and got off medication
Jaclyn Lathrop, 24, began having chest pain, numbness in her arms and legs, and dizzy spells shortly after graduating from college in May 2006. Her doctor told her she was having severe panic attacks and prescribed a medication to help with anxiety. But she hated taking the medication and eventually found the path to a panic-free life—with her dog, Bentley.
"It is not by chance or luck though," she says. "I am convinced that it is my dog. Bentley is my constant. I am never alone and I have complete trust in him. If he was not with me all the time I have no doubt that my panic attacks would return. As long as he’s there, I am my happy, energetic, normal self." Today, a year and a half after the attacks, Jaclyn has moved from Boston to suburban Pennsylvania, bought a house, and gotten engaged. Plus, she is off the meds.
Our cat calms my son
Linda Herbert’s son Jon, 25, suffered a severe head injury in a car accident six years ago. Jon has made a great recovery, but he still has some memory problems and is often restless, Linda says. He can easily become upset or agitated because of damage to the frontal lobe of his brain. But their 15-year-old cat, Bugsy, has proven to be a helpful friend through it all.
"Bugsy has always had a calming effect on Jon," says Linda, "but it is much more noticeable since Jon’s accident." When Bugsy curls up in Jon’s lap, Linda says, Jon happily pets the cat and is immediately more relaxed.
Adopting dogs cured my insomnia
After 12 years in an apartment building that didn’t allow pets, Lori Symmonds moved to a small house with her daughter and adopted two dogs, Roxy and Obi, from a local animal shelter. Before the dogs came into her life, Lori had often felt "generally unwell" and sometimes went days without sleeping.
Her two new best friends caused “unquestionable” improvement, Lori says: "I have slept all night, every night, ever since. I feel years younger." Roxy and Obi get her up and active too; previously, she would often just sit at home. The dogs' positive attitude rubs off. "Every morning when we wake up they wiggle around in excitement about the new day," she says. "It’s hard to not catch a little of their enthusiasm."
My dog is my bedside nurse
Sandi Sheehan has been having trouble getting pregnant since 2006, and it was depressing her. But her husband reminded her that she was already a mom—to their 3-year-old Australian shepherd, Jake. “Whether it was his reliance on me to feed him, his willingness for me to bathe him, his allowing me to put him in his seat belt when he goes with me in the car, (or) trusting me while tending to his boo-boos, Jake has been my model of boundless unconditional love, companionship, and support, especially when I have felt I am at my wit's end."
Sandi is undergoing in vitro fertilization therapy in her California home, with Jake as bedside nurse, cuddling during uncomfortable progesterone shots. "He hops up onto (the) bed and lies at my feet when I feel like I can’t do this anymore," she says. "He gives me wet kisses at the precise moment I need a dose of hope."
My greyhound and I nursed each other back to health
Retired racing greyhound Joe Pye went to live with Sue Mooney Durango and her family in their Colorado home after his right front leg was amputated. "Throughout his hospitalization and rehab, he remained brave, friendly, and kind to everyone he encountered," Sue says. "I will never forget how each day he tried a little more, and how excited we all were when he made it around the block for the first time."
Just a few months later, Sue underwent hip replacement surgery. She says she had support from family and friends, as well as a great team of doctors, but it was Joe that really helped her through this difficult time. "Joe was there for me as a loving ‘son’ and role model," she says.