Prescription Pets

The health benefits of animals

Furry Friends volunteers (pets and humans alike) gather together to deliver their special brand of caregiving at the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford.

Photographs by Rachael Olmstead

On a sunny Tuesday morning, therapy dogs Ruby, Simon, and Thor visited the residents on the skilled nursing floor of Los Gatos Meadows Retirement Home. Group leader and longtime volunteer Mary Collins asked each resident, “Would you like a visit from a dog?”

Ruby, a black Newfoundland with gentle eyes and a big pink tongue, stood patiently while residents petted her. Thor, a standard poodle fresh from the dog groomer, seemed to enjoy the comments about his good looks. Simon allowed himself to be placed on the lap of a resident in a wheelchair, eliciting a smile. As the dogs and their handlers moved around the floor, they brought exclamations of surprise and delight.

Collins is a volunteer with Furry Friends, a nonprofit organization based in San Jose that provides pet-assisted therapy. She can attest to a growing body of evidence that proves what most pet owners already know: animals are good for us.

Dogs and cats provide companionship and love, plus some surprising medical benefits. A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that pet owners who had been released from the hospital after heart attacks survived longer than patients who did not own pets. Another study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that senior citizens who owned pets had fewer incidents of depression and were more physically and socially active. Some studies show that children who grow up with pets have fewer allergies and asthma.

Longtime cat owner Carol Rose of Los Gatos believes that pets are natural caregivers. Carol has owned approximately 40 cats since childhood. Her two current cats, Sport and Friday, “know when I don’t feel well. When I’m sick, they come over and lie on me.” Carol treats her kitties well, feeding them organic chicken and calling them on the phone when she’s away. “They give me so much,” she says. “When I pet my cats, I feel better.”

Stress relief is a major benefit of being in the company of animals. Collins recalls a patient whose blood pressure, as measured by a doctor, dropped after a visit from a therapy dog. Therapy animals have been proven to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and children coping with serious illnesses.

High schools and colleges, including Santa Clara University’s Law School, often request therapy animals from Furry Friends to help their students cope with the stress of taking exams. Last year, Monta Vista High School in Cupertino requested 18 therapy dogs during finals week. The dogs passed the test. “The kids loved them,” says Rhonda Hardy, a board member and volunteer with Furry Friends.