Caregiver Support from An Unlikely Source: Pets

I was taking a walk today with my beagle, Olive, and everything was business as usual. Controlled by her nose, she sniffed her way down the block until we approached our neighbors sitting on their front lawn, a middle-aged man and his elderly mother. Olive catapulted toward the pair and, for whatever reason, went immediately to the elderly woman instead of the man.

Despite a sprint up to her lap, Olive was otherwise gentle in her approach and was soon standing up with her front paws resting on the woman’s lap. Olive respectfully showed the woman plenty of love, offering her gentle touch and licking at her face. Was there a reason why Olive went to the woman and not her son? As it turned out, the woman’s dog, a black Labrador, recently died from cancer. While conspiracy theorists or those who believe in superstition might be inclined to attribute it to a dog’s “sixth sense,” this might not be too far from the truth and Olive’s propensity to approach the elderly may have not been a mistake at all.

Experts and animal psychics believe dogs can feel the energy of humans around them, and this may have tipped off Olive to the elderly woman. Forty-three percent of pet owners say dogs have warned them about bad news, according to a 2010 Associated poll. But the benefits of pets are not limited to their tendencies to pick up on nonverbals and emotion.

According to a University of California study on Alzheimer’s, patients can reduce stress and have fewer outbursts with a pet in the home. Furthermore, even though they can’t talk like us, pets provide a beneficial form of nonverbal communication. Playful interaction and the soft touch of a pet can halt aggressive behavior in an Alzheimer’s patient. Consider these other fun health benefits that pets can bring about:

  • Pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression than those without pets.
  • People with pets have lower blood pressure in stressful situations than those without pets.
  • Playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine, which calm and relax.
  • Pet owners have lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (indicators of heart disease) than those without pets.
  • Heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without.
  • Pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
  • A pet doesn’t have to be a dog or a cat. Even watching fish in an aquarium can help reduce muscle tension and pulse rate.

While dogs can help improve a patient’s lifestyle, don’t forget about cats. The subdued, calming nature of cats can thwart the stressful environment that family caregiving can bring about, in both caregivers and those receiving care. A stressed caregiver can have an impact on their loved one, so if everybody is comfortable with cats and allergies aren’t a concern, the quiet nature of our feline friends can help promote a healthy, serene atmosphere and, ultimately, an optimal environment for caregiving.

Overall, a pet can improve the moods of both the caregiver and caretaker. Most pets fulfill the basic human need to touch. Even the most dangerous, notorious criminals have shown behavioral changes after interacting with pets for the first time. Touching a loving animal can immediately reduce levels of stress and produce endorphins, which promote happy feelings in the brain. A pet can ease loneliness and stimulate exercise, which can also significantly improve mood.
So, whether someone is battling Alzheimer’s disease or suffering from clinical depression, a pet can be just what the doctor ordered. And, for family caregivers looking for ways to help with their loved ones, they may not have to look much further than their own homes for a creative and soothing way to relieve tension and bring a smile to their faces.

Maybe Olive knew something none of us knew when she approached the woman who was grieving the loss of her pet. I would like to think so.

Written By:  | April 3rd, 2012

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