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"The Healing Power of Pets" article

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In 2010, at the age of 51, appliance sales manager Eric O'Grey was in a bad place. He weighed 320 pounds and as a consequence was racking up more than $1,000 a month for medications to deal with his high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. Doctors told him that if he didn't turn his life around and lose significant weight, his life expectancy was most likely no more than five years.

Then, at the advice of a doctor, he adopted a dog from a shelter. He decided on a somewhat obese middle-aged dog that he saw as not unlike himself. This dog needed to be walked at least a half-hour a day, something O'Gray did without fail. O'Grey next adopted a plant-based diet and he stuck with it. Within a year, he lost 140 pounds. His dog "Peety" lost 25 pounds. In addition, O'Grey was off his meds for good.

Peety had in fact rescued him — from an old pattern of trying to reform habits only to fall back into his unhealthful ways. "He looked at me like I was the best person on the planet," O'Grey told NPR, "and I wanted to become the person he thought I was."

According to the Humane Society, nearly 2.4 million healthy cats and dogs are put down in U.S. shelters each year; about one every 13 seconds.

Can something as seemingly simple as the introduction of an adopted pet into someone's life bring on renewed health? Animal-assisted therapy has long been used to significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression and fatigue in people with a range of health problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having a pet has proven to help decrease blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and feelings of loneliness. It increases opportunities for exercise and socializing with others. Medical evidence exists demonstrating that interaction with pets helps people cope with challenges ranging from Alzheimer's Disease, to end of life trauma, to PTSD.

Last week I discussed the many shortcomings of government institutions and practices for military personnel returning from war, as it relates to the treatment of clinical depression and PTSD. Many of the difficulties are systematic. Lost somewhat in the conversation are those veterans who may not be able to admit that they are struggling and need help. In many of these instances, a dog can serve as their rescuer in transitioning them to civilian life and in finding rehabilitation.

As Dr. Tracy Stecker, a clinical psychologist who works with veterans once noted in Psychology Today, having a dog in the room in many ways mimics the buddy system to which military personnel are accustomed. This pet can help in dealing with symptoms developed in war by immediately letting someone struggling with nightmares — waking in the night, not knowing if they are in immediate danger — assuring them they are safe and they are not alone.

Dogs also help veterans relearn trust, a critically important issue for those suffering from PTSD. Dogs help heal by being a trustworthy companion. In short, a dog can be a loving companion that can lift your spirits, lessen depression, decrease feelings of isolation and alienation, encourage communication and provide needed comfort. This pet can also provide motivation to move more, stretch farther and exercise longer.

At the Mayo Clinic, animal-assisted therapy is a growing field that uses dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, such as heart disease, cancer and mental health disorders. More than a dozen certified therapy dogs are part of Mayo Clinic's Caring Canines program. It's not only the ill person who reaps the benefits of such therapy. Family members and friends who sit in on animal visits say they feel better as well.

A concern about animal-assisted therapy — particularly in hospitals — is safety and sanitation. Most hospitals and other facilities that use pet therapy have stringent rules to ensure that the animals are clean, vaccinated, well-trained and screened for appropriate behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never received a report of infection from animal-assisted therapy.

Sleep experts have long thought that pets in the bedroom are disruptive to a person's sleep. You may be interested to learn that a recent Mayo Clinic survey found 41 percent of patients who share their beds with their animals find it beneficial. Some say it helps them relax and gives a sense of security. If your pet sleeps on your bed at home, it is recommended you wash your sheets frequently.

While it's true I'm a dog lover, dogs are not the only pet effectively used in helping people cope with health problems. If you were to take a stroll through downtown Portland, for example, it's quite possible you might happen upon Rojo the llama and Napoleon the alpaca, prancing along the sidewalk, a new dynamic duo changing the face of therapy animals in the Pacific Northwest. Similar in appearance, llamas and alpacas are both domesticated South American species of camels.

Eight years ago, Rojo and Napoleon went through an extensive process to get certified as therapy animals. Now part of the non-profit Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, they have clocked more than 1000 clinical visits.

Smiling and laughter are known to be a tonic for health and longevity. That's exactly what Rojo and Napoleon provide for patients, their families and friends, and sidewalk pedestrians as well.

To this day Shannon Gregory, one of the animal handlers, remembers the first time she took them to visit a medical facility. "Every room we were going in to, it was like seeing miracles happen," she says.

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