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Patients and Their Pets

Managing a health problem or chronic illness? Research shows dogs, cats and other loyal friends can be good for you.

Patients and Their Pets

Pets carve out a warm and cozy space in the lives of their owners. And if that pet owner happens to be a patient who’s managing a health problem, research suggests companion animals help them cope. 

Having a dog is associated with better outcomes following a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack, according to a large Swedish study published in an American Heart Association journal. Dogs may help patients get exercise and social support, assisting in a successful recovery, researchers found.

Another study in a journal called Chronic Illness concluded that young people with type 1 diabetes found their dogs, cats, birds and lizards to be a rich source of social support, which means the help and companionship we get from others.

In another, researchers concluded that human–pet interactions “are not necessarily categorically different from interpersonal interactions” with other humans.

A small study out of Canada even suggests that snuggling with pets helps people with chronic pain to sleep better and establish a healthy bedtime schedule.

The practice of pairing animals and patients goes back more than 100 years. Florence Nightingale is widely credited for seeing the benefits of small pets for chronically ill patients. She brought in animals to visit wounded soldiers, theorizing that pets promote healing.

Today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shares the positive benefits of pet ownership for the general population on its website. Pet owners are more likely to exercise, get outdoors, and socialize, resulting in decreases in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels. Furry friends also help people to feel less lonely and depressed.

Dog owners, in particular, have a lot to be grateful for, according to recent research that captured media attention. Having a dog was “protective against dying of any cause,” according to an extensive review of research published in Circulation.

But the CDC advises owners to select the right pet for their families and take steps to avoid infections carried by animals. That’s especially important for patients who have immune system problems.

As a girl, Lynne Doebber got sick a lot and remembers her cats as loyal companions. At age 16, she had to miss four months of school due to illness. Her childhood cat “Scampy” was there while her parents were working and her sister was at school.

Late in life, she was finally diagnosed with a primary immunodeficiency disease called common variable immunodeficiency (CVID). Primary immunodeficiency is a serious medical condition in which a person’s immune system is not working correctly – making them more susceptible to infections.

Now retired in North Carolina, Doebber still treasures her feline friends and she takes extra care to wash her hands and keeps her cats indoors to limit the chance they could transmit illness. Cats “Kiva” and “Brandywine” keep Doebber company during regular self-infusion treatments at home for her primary immunodeficiency.

“My cats give me joy. They sit with me during every infusion,” she said. They provide so much comfort and an unconditional love.”

Since her diagnosis, Doebber has counseled hundreds of other patients who are beginning a therapy regimen to treat primary immunodeficiencies. They also find their pets to be great sources of support.

“Their pets sit with them loyally,” she said.

And though human relationships are also important, there’s something refreshingly simple about bonding with a companion animal, Doebber said.

“Dogs have no hidden agenda.”