Pet Therapy: The Evidence

New anecdotal reports shed light on existing hard evidence that pet therapy has significant medical effects as an adjunct to conventional medical care.

Studies have shown that "animal-assisted therapy" (AAT) have contributed to health improvement. In "Animal-Assisted Therapy in Cardiovascular Disease" (Sem. Integrative Medicine, 2004;4:2:131-4), Andrew Wolff MD and William Frishman MD review the literature and report that, among other things: a 10-month prospective study of 71 new pet owners found that dog owners had a highly significant reduction in minor health problems beginning the first month in ownership; a study of 5,741 subjects showed that male pet owners had lower systolic blood pressure and a 2% reduction in cholesterol levels; patients with healed myocardial infarcts who were pet owners had higher heart rate variability (HRV), sugggesting decreased mortality and arrhythmic complications and increased survival. One study found a significant decrease in blood pressure following 5 to 24 minutes of positive interactions with a dog.

The authors also reported that pets are present in 60% of households, that 99% of pet owners consider their pet part of the family, and that of 500 former pet owners in a hospital, the most frequently missed thing was their pet. AAT is now defined as a "goal directed intervention in which an animal meeting specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process."

Move now from scientific evidence to the evidence of the heart.

I was skeptical of the literature having had some less than positive associations with dogs and a great deal of fear in younger years--a fear I have seen mirrored in many faces through many encounters over recent month.

Enter Ujayi. He has a good lineage: champion father and mother of champ stock, very mellow when I met her and whispered in her ear that I would take good care of her son. Flash forward: six months of training at the Pawsitive Dog. Lots of challenging moments. My dog growing in his natural course and tripling in size in a few months. Struggles for dominance; yanking, nipping, jumping, veering, careening. Riding the "T" together. Learning about alpha and wolf pack behavior (which explained a lot more about office politics, by the way, than many management courses), and how to assert "top dog" firmly yet tenderly. yoga-bag-photos 010.jpg yoga-bag-photos 017.jpg I had meditated for years, danced with deities in meditation, felt the kundalini energy course up my spine, learned that consciousness is non-local and universal, practiced distance healing, studied the world's religions, held the ideal of treating all beings with respect and love. Om Shalom. Loka Samasta Sukhino Bhawantu. May The Denizens Of The World Have Peace And Happiness. Yet, learning to deal with bared teeth, growls, struggles over kibble and cookies, overstimulation, demands for attention, and unexpected alpha takeovers challenged my sense of meditative equipoise and bliss. Indeed, I was stressed.

I have now accepted our multi-species family (consistent with my belief in the bioethical principle of species neutrality--we are all equal in status, though we do have assigned roles) with joy. And what began as a power struggle has matured into a relationship of mutual understanding; indeed, if I tune in, it seems I can even get in sync with Ujayi's chi--divining (or anticipating), as it were, his thoughts as he divines or anticipates mine. There has been a movement from control, to guidance; from frustration to ease; from anxiety to equanimity. That in turn allows us to commune on a higher frequency, on which in which we are subtly in tune with one another (as the attached photo shows--here we are bathed in auric light) (This is not trick photography!)12-04-Ujayi-pollux 016.jpg.

(Sometimes images or even words will come to mind, giving me an inkling of the consciousness residing in this body elegantly cantering next to mine. I'll save for another time my theory of how natural telepathic communication actually can be, and how the lines between human and animal, embodied and disincarnate, mineral and angelic, are much more blurred than our current science asserts--like the time I put a rock on the tomb of Marc Chagall and audibly heard (as might have Hamlet) the word "shalom").

There are bumps along the way, to be sure--as in any relationship, conflict resolution skills are essential; one has to know how to negotiate, when to be 'hard' and when to be 'soft,' always keeping in mind the goal that Harvard Law School professors Roger Fischer and Bill Ury desribed as "getting to yes." But our visits to the Irish bakery, the Pope John Paul II Park, and some of our favorite Boston stops are growing sweeter, more aligned. I do not know the effect on my blood pressure or chlosterol (both seemed to be favorable during the last visit), though I do know that some of the spiritual lessons I received in meditation, which I understood on intellectual and emotional (head and heart) levels, are becoming more realized in my being.

If Getting to Yes in negotiation takes work, doing so in Being presents an even steeper ladder. If integrative medicine is about integrating conventional care and safe and effective complementary and alterantive health modalities, what is the integrative medicine of the soul? It's not chicken soup, especially for a vegetarian.

When asked to coach friends, or soul-searching through a problem or challenge in my own life, I like to think of a triad of orders: spiritual, emotional, and pragmatic. A kind of balance not between intuition, heart and head.

All three legs of the stool are necessary. The challenge can't be spiritualized away ("just surrender and trust," as some New Age writers might churlishly advise), nor can it be understood only a psychological level along (for example, the way Freud tried to reduce God to human projection of the father archetype), nor can it be resolved psychologically and spiritually without a good pragmatic head. Rational analysis has a lot to add to psycho-spiritual integration, and without the head, talk from heart and spirit can offer facile solutions; yet a talking head alone yields a great emptiness.

Just as negotiation theory, whether micro (individuals) or macro (nations) deals with interests at the pragmatic level, and can also benefit from understanding emotional and intuitive aspects of the negotiation process, similarly, problem-solving seems to require a holistic approach, a synthesis of our divergent capacities. And we could elaborate on what a true synthesis of the different aspects of "mind" would look like.

But I digress: the point is that animal-assisted therapy can play a role, offering my own anecdotal experience, and that the species equality that seems compelling to me as a bioethical principle has resonance in my own experience with our animal friends and family members.

To quote Chief Seattle (1854), who is quoted in Marc Micozzi, PhD's editorial in the same issue of Seminars in Integrative Medicine:

What is a person without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, one would die of a great oneliness of the spirit. All things are connected.