Stress blog

Pet therapy: How animals help us heal

By Edward T. Creagan, M.D. July 15, 2010

I'm part of a palliative medicine program at Mayo Clinic. Palliative medicine is an emerging specialty that focuses on quality of life and symptom control for patients with life-altering conditions. It's closely related to the hospice movement.

Several months ago, I was asked to see a woman in her early 30s who had suffered a devastating accident that resulted in paralysis from the waist down and a life-threatening infection from a broken bone in the thigh. She underwent multiple surgeries and was started on a complicated medication schedule. Before she left the hospital she was instructed in the importance of keeping the wound clean and how to change the dressing, and reminded to strictly follow her medication schedule. The patient was bright and clearly understood the importance of these recommendations.

Over a number of months, however, the patient returned to the hospital frustrated and in a desperate situation from dehydration and pain. Once again, she was given careful instructions, which she said she understood.

When I later visited with the patient in the outpatient setting, I saw a miraculous transformation. Hope had replaced despair, and joy had replaced anger.  I asked her what had happened. She said, "I owe it all to Toto."

Toto was a dog that my patient had rescued from the local pound. This dog, in turn, helped save its owner by giving her a reason to get out of the bed every morning. Toto needed to be fed and walked. Toto had to see the vet, and so on.

Toto brought something more as well. As scientists have discovered, animals have healing powers. When you stroke a cat or pet a dog, you experience a surge of healing hormones and chemicals that produce feelings of peace and serenity.

Healing relationships come in many sizes. Some have two legs, some have four legs, and some even have fins or feathers. Do you have a Toto in your life? Share your story.

With

Edward T. Creagan, M.D.

Follow on Twitter: @EdwardCreagan

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Jul. 15, 2010