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Health Fusion: The power of pets can produce smiles

Try to tell someone a story about your beloved pet without smiling. I bet you can't! In this "Health Fusion" for NewsMD column, Viv Williams introduces you to her new puppy, Ruby, and explores the healing power of pets.

Viv Williams

Recently, we welcomed a new Labrador retriever puppy into our home. Little Ruby. She's adorable. At eight weeks she's not old enough yet to want to chew her way through some drywall, which her older sibling attempted to do. She's 13 pounds of complete joy. I've always been a huge dog advocate and believe that pups, or any pets, have the power to reduce stress, relieve loneliness and flood your world with happiness.

If you google "health benefits of pets," lots of articles pop up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website lists several benefits , including that pets help to decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and triglycerides while increasing your chances of exercising, getting outdoors and socializing.

Pets also provide a sense of purpose. They give you a reason to get up in the morning. My friend, Dr. Edward Creagan , a cancer specialist, author of many books, public speaker, marathon runner and owner of two cats and a gorgeous golden retriever, has seen the healing power of pets first-hand during his career at Mayo Clinic.

"I saw dogs and cats transform people's lives," says Creagan. "Many years ago, I treated a patient who was in rough shape physically and emotionally. He had complicated medical issues. But he kept telling me that he had to get home to Max. I naively thought Max was a spouse or friend. But Maw was an 85-pound German shepherd cross. Max was the catalyst -- the life preserver that gave that man the energy to harness his healing power to get home."

It seems dogs are people too. I get chills thinking about it and believe that the human-pet bond is real. And it is working its magic on my father-in-law right now. He's in a rehab facility after some tough medical issues, but is working hard to get home to join his wife and Ellie. Ellie is a gentle, elderly yellow Labrador retriever with the kindest eyes you've ever seen. Her snout and face are pure white, as if she had plunged it into a bin of bread flour. My father-in-law's eyes sparkle at her mention.


"What happens when you pet that dog, hold that ferret or groom that horse?" asks Creagan. "There is a cascade of feel-good hormones that have healing potential, including endorphins, serotonin and prolactin."


  • Health Fusion: Should you let your dog sleep in your bed at night? We got a new puppy! In this episode of NewsMD's podcast, "Health Fusion," Viv Williams introduces Ruby, a little Labrador retriever puppy. She consults research about whether or not Ruby should sleep in her own bed or a family member's bed.
  • Discover more from Viv Williams in Health Fusion in NewsMD

Creagan says it's the same sort of mood boost you get when you eat a delectable piece of chocolate -- that is -- if you're a chocoholic like me. OK, I confess. A day in which there are dogs and chocolate is a good day, indeed.
During our conversation about the health benefits of pets, Creagan told me that he asked every one of his cancer patients if they had pets. If so, he'd jot down the pets' names in their medical records. Then on their next visit, he'd ask about that pet.

"l'd say, 'Hey, tell me about George., or tell them about Sally,'" says Creagan. "And all of a sudden, the tension of cancer dissipated. No one can speak about their dog or cat without smiling or telling a funny story."

So, I decided to conduct a little nonscientific experiment and try this out myself. My method was to ask the next five people I saw if they had a pet and to note what happened to their facial expressions and general demeanor when they responded. Admittedly, I approached this experiment with tons of built-in bias. I mean, who wouldn't smile at the chance to talk about their pet, right? And, wouldn't you know, results were positive. All five people had a pet. And they smiled and seemed to relax a bit when I asked the ownership question.

Our little Ruby, who snoozes by my feet as I write this, looks calm and cozy right now. Angelic, even. I'm grateful to have her, because she makes my life and my family members' lives better. We'll love her and care for her always. Even if she emerges from the cuddly puppy phase into the naughty puppy phase and decides to imitate her older sibling by attempting to chew her way through the mudroom drywall.

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