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The healing power of pets; nursing homes, hospitals, and even prisons are going to the dogs ... and other animals ... to improve the health and moral of patients and inmates.


Much has been written in the past few years about the bond between people and their pets. Pets help keep us young: They decrease loneliness, and they give us the opportunity to be needed. Pets also offer a healthier lifestyle by stimulating us to exercise while we take care of them.

Only in the past five years have health-care professionals begun to realize the power of pets to heal, both physically and psychologically. Doctors, psychologists, gerontologists, and therapists are now unleashing that pet power in homes for the elderly, in hospitals and hospices, and in prisons.

The elderly may benefit from pets the most. At a time in their lives when they have returned to dependency on others, they need to feel a sense of responsibility. Pets fulfill this need because they depend on their owners for care and attention. In return, the pets offer love and unqualified approval.

When introduced to regressed and unresponsive nursing-home patients, pets have produced spectacular results. They an brighten the lives of the better-adjusted patients as well. In 1982 a group of Cincinnati veterinarians started "Pets Helping People,' a program that provides pet visitations, with dogs carefully screened for temperament, to nursing homes. Today, "Pets Helping People' sends 83 volunteers to 20 separate institutions; other institution directors are clamoring to be added to the list. The organizers, who hope to branch out into cat visitations, are working as well on a program to maintain permanent pets in nursing homes.

News about the benefits of pets for the elderly has reached Washington, D.C., too. 12 U.S.C. 1701R allows residents in federal housing for the aged and handicapped to keep and care for pets. Landlords, however, may set guidelines for pet ownership and take into consideration the size of the pets, the amount of care they require, and the population of the building. Naturally, the rights of residents who think animals are "for the birds' must also be respected.

Elsewhere, volunteer groups have formed to help the elderly who live in their own homes. These "good scouts' offer dog-walking services, transportation to veterinary hospitals, and foster care for pets should an owner undergo hospitalization or die.

Pets can have a physical as well as a psychological effect. Although I have yet to hear a doctor say "Take one pet and call me in the morning,' such a scenario is not far-fetched, for pets have been proved to lower blood pressure and to hasten healing. The survival rates of 92 coronary patients were studied by one group of researchers, who found that within a year after hospitalization, 11 of 29 patients without pets, but only 3 of 53 who had pets, died. The physical and occupational therapy provided by caring for the pets may have been a factor in this study, but I am convinced that the healing process is physically enhanced by the sense of responsibility and self-worth felt by the pet owners.

And what works for the elderly works for children, too. Specially trained dogs visit the Children's Pavilion at Indianapolis' Methodist Hospital every Thursday to minister to ailing children. The dogs help the young patients to focus attention on getting well rather than on their illnesses.

Programs that involve animals are also being used in prisons. The animals contribute to the rehabilitation of inmates and help improve the quality of life for long-term prisoners. Like the birdman of Alcatraz, many hardened criminals soften up a bit when taking care of parakeets or goldfish in their cells or while tending goats and rabbits in the prison yard. Learning animal grooming and training enables some offenders to gain valuable job skills and to help others by training animals for use by the handicapped.

Pets may not be a cure for all that ails us, but often they are a most effective medicine. If you would like to help animals help people, check your phone book; there may already be an organization in your community. For guidelines to set up a local volunteer program to help elderly pet owners, write to People-Pet Partnership, College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164.

Questions for the Vet

Dear Dr. Whiteley:

I have an 80-pound German shepherd /husky (lots and lots of hair) and two indoor cats.

You do not seem to put much faith in brewer's yeast in combating fleas. I do. I have been giving brewer's yeast with garlic to my pets for several years, and they do not have fleas (and they do not wear chemical flea collars). They get brewer's yeast with garlic every day mixed in their food. The secret to this remedy is to give the yeast all year long, not just two weeks before the flea season. Occasionally, I will take the brewer's yeast with garlic powder and rub it onto their skin (begin at the tail end and stroke it upward to the head). Sure beats all those nasty chemicals, plus it's a lot cheaper and healthier. I just had the dog (next week the cats) to the vet for her booster shots, and he said she looks good for 14 years old.

Margaret Sucick Old Tappan, New Jersey

Dear Margaret:

I have never been one to knock success, and if readers want to try brewer's yeast, which is high in vitamin B1 (thiamine), it can be obtained at health-food stores. Scientific studies in veterinary journals have reported no difference in flea numbers or fleabites between dogs fed brewer's yeast and those receiving placebos.


Dear Dr. Whiteley:

The diet for overweight dogs that appeared in the March issue of The Saturday Evening Post leaves me with three questions:

1. What are "canned solids'?

2. Are the carrots cooked, partly cooked, or raw?

3. Does a person need to ask his dog's veterinarian for the dicalcium phosphate?

I have used a commercially available dog food that is supposed to have fewer calories, but my dog remains a "pudge-pot.' This diet, which lets you know the calorie count, is almost the answer to a prayer.

B.J. Davidson Traverse City, Michigan

Dear B.J.:

The diet to which you refer is reprinted as follows:

Low-fat Reducing Diet for Dogs

1/4 pound lean ground beef, cooked; fat drained off

1/2 cup uncreamed cottage cheese

2 cups carrots, canned solids*

2 cups green beans, canned solids

1 1/2 teaspoons dicalcium phosphate

This diet is a balanced supplement that fulfills the canine MDR for vitamins and minerals. Yields 1 3/4 pounds at 250 Kcal/pound.

* Canned solids means the drained food product from a can. Measure 2 cups uncooked carrots and 2 cups uncooked beans from the contents of the drained cans for the recipe. Bonemeal powder, which is easier to find at pharmacies than powdered dicalcium, can be substituted in equal amounts.

Most veterinary clinics carry a prescription dog food that is a highfiber, low-fat reducing diet. It would certainly be easier and perhaps cheaper to purchase this dog food than to prepare your own.


Dear Dr. Whiteley:

I just read your article "Watching Your Pet's Weight' (March '86). I was surprised that you did not mention the easiest and most natural way to control a dog's weight, self-feeding. From experience, I know it works. I had a Labrador and a Chihuahua-terrier, and they both were terribly overweight until my vet told me to fill up their bowls, keep them full, and leave the food available 24 hours a day. They lost the excess poundage and never had a weight problem again. They lived to the ripe old ages of 15 and 18. Now I have a collie-shepherd and a mixed terrier (Scottie), both 3 years old, and they have never had a weight problem. The terrier has a stocky build, and I was told she would have a weight problem, but she does not. They are both house dogs and do not get as much exercise as I would like. I even allow them a taste of my evening meal after I have finished, in a small dish of their own.

I was told that it is a dog's nature to eat what it needs, eating until it is FULL and then not eating for a day or so. I find this to be true. My dogs' health is excellent. One of them was even able to give blood to a puppy that was dying and save its life.

Frances H. McClary Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Dear Frances:

The cause of obesity is that the body takes in more calories than it utilizes. Food intake is regulated by voluntary and involuntary internal controls. You are most fortunate that your animals respond to these controls and eat only to maintain their optimum weight.

Most owners are not so fortunate. Many animals eat the same amount of food, but as their activity decreases, obesity occurs. Some dogs overeat when competing with another dog for food. Often, animals overeat when presented with a more palatable diet. The reasons for canine obesity are as varied as the ones for human obesity. Self-feeding will not result in weight loss for every dog. Reducing calories and increasing exercise are the only answers for some of us and our pets.

Dear Dr. Whiteley:

I have a nine-month-old female Boston terrier, which our vet insists I feed only puppy food. To make this more palatable, I dribble about a half teaspoon of honey over it. (She wouldn't eat it before.) I also break up one boiled chicken thigh in it for her evening meal. (I skin these before boiling them in plain water.) Will the honey harm her in any way?

M.E. Moss Mobile, Alabama

Dear Mrs. Moss:

I don't think it makes any difference if you feed your dog in the morning or at night, as long as you are consistent. If your animal seems unsatisfied by once-a-day feeding, you can always feed her both morning and night. The boned chicken is an excellent source of high-quality protein, as long as it supplements a nutritionally balanced dog food. However, honey is an added source of calories and a potential contributor to tooth decay. I encourage you to phase it out as your puppy gets older.


Photo: In the treatment of children, pets may definitely have an edge over doctors when it comes to bedside manner.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Whiteley, H. Ellen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Oct 1, 1986
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