Health & Wellness
The power of pets

The power of pets

Explore the connection between furry family members and better health
by Amy Meadows

There are many reasons why a dog is man’s best friend. Our beloved four-legged companions are loyal, trusting and affectionate. They can make us smile with a simple wag of the tail or a spirited lick on the face. But there’s more. It turns out that your precious pooch can actually be extremely beneficial to your health. Research has shown that all kinds of pets—from dogs and cats to birds and fish—can improve the overall wellbeing of their owners.

“There’s no doubt that pets can be a great health benefit to people,” says Charles L. Raison, M.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, clinical director of the Mind-Body Program and director of the Behavioral Immunology Program at Emory University. “People who have warm, close relationships that are supportive tend to live longer and not develop as many illnesses or diseases. That’s almost certainly what pets are tapping into. For instance, dogs are like four-legged members of our families. Our relationship with dogs is ancient; they have co-evolved with us. The relationship we have is a relationship of trust, mutual support and mutual benefit. We’re old partners through space and time, and that fact definitely can be exploited for therapeutic benefit.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pets can decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels. The Delta Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving health through service and therapy animals, also reveals that “seniors with dogs go to the doctor less with minor health issues.” What’s more, Raison adds that having a pet in your life can help lower your heart rate at any age. The reason is not completely understood yet, but what we do know is that by creating an overall calming effect in our lives, pets can actually change the way our bodies react to common, daily stimuli.

“If the markers of the fight or flight response, such as heart rate and blood pressure, are elevated chronically, it predicts developing illnesses like heart disease and stroke. It also activates inflammation," Raison explains. "In ancient times, these stress systems were designed to protect us from being eaten by a tiger. But in modern times, we’re activating them by getting frustrated in traffic. And these systems are like a gun—you don’t want to fire them more often than you have to or activate them unnecessarily. Our bodies, on an ancient, deep level, act like everything is a life-and-death situation, and we’re sustaining damage. It sets you up for a variety of modern illnesses because it puts a lot of wear and tear on the body and the brain. But data suggests that pets lower the stress response. They promote a sort of anti-stress physiology. We need to have positive psychosocial connectivity, and pets are part of that domain. They reduce stress and promote parasympathetic signaling. In our modern world, these are very healthy reactions.”

Of course, the physical health benefits extend beyond basic bodily functions such as heart rate and blood pressure. Pets also can play a key role in alleviating the pain associated with illness or aging in general. “There’s clear scientific proof that emotional pain and physical pain are run by the same pathways in the body,” Raison says. “If someone experimentally is put in a bad mood, the same amount of pain feels much worse than if you experimentally put them in a good mood. If a pet makes you feel cheered up and relaxes you, then the same amount of pain won’t be perceived as being as painful. There’s a song called ‘Love is Like a Drug.’ It actually is. It activates all sorts of anti-pain pathways, anti-anxiety pathways and reward centers in the brain.”

When it comes to pets and people, it’s all about unconditional love that offers mutual benefits. For the person, the connection with a pet can be as restorative as it is enjoyable. As Raison concludes, “Whatever life situation you’re in, a pet would probably benefit your health. And the greater your need—the more vulnerable you are or the more your health is struggling—the more likely a pet is to help you.”

Pets and Your Mood

It’s clear that the physical health benefits linked to pet ownership coincide with an array of mental and emotional ones. For starters, because many seniors live alone, having a pet can afford them the company they crave. “For senior citizens, the benefits of pets are multiplied,” says Susan Leisure, director of Atlanta Animal Friends Rescue Inc. (AARF), which established the Silver Paws Program to connect mature pet lovers with homeless mature pets. “Many seniors, especially those who are widowed or retired, can be lonely and feel disconnected. A pet can provide that companionship that we all need.”

Simply by needing care, pets also give their owners a sense of hope and purpose, making seniors feel like “life is worth fighting for.”

The CDC notes that pets offer people the opportunity to get out and meet others, giving them a larger social network and a real feeling of belonging in their environment. Leisure agrees, stating, “Pets provide a built-in social connection. A walk to the park with a dog is not only good for the physical wellbeing of the dog and his guardian, but can result in social interaction, helping the senior adult feel connected to the world around him or her.”

Researchers Mary M. DeSchriver and Carol Cutler Riddick illustrated the positive effects of animals on seniors’ physical health with their study published in Anthrozoös: A Multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People and Animals. The investigation involved having elderly subjects watch a fish aquarium during 8-minute treatment sessions. The results were impressive; the aquarium observers, who defined the experience as relaxing, exhibited a decrease in pulse rate and muscle tension and an increase in skin temperature.

Purina Cat Chow Invites Pet Lovers to Cat Nap for the Cure

From fighting a disease such as breast cancer to going through a stressful personal experience, cat owners can benefit from their relationship with their pet. According to Dr. Karen Sueda of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, “Something as simple as curling up for a quick nap is a great way to get much needed rest and spend quality time with a faithful feline companion who will comfort and support you just by being there.”

In fact, a recent Purina Cat Chow national survey of breast cancer survivors with cats showed that more than 84 percent of respondents felt their cat had a calming effect during their battle with breast cancer and nearly seven out of 10 said their cats were a source of comfort when battling the disease.

The Purina Cat Chow Cat Nap for the Cause campaign invites breast cancer awareness supporters nationwide to register beginning August 1, to take a 20-minute cat nap during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Purina Cat Chow will donate $2 for each registered participant up to $150,000. Each participant will receive a sponsor page so they can share their story of survival or support, post photos of themselves and/or their feline companions and invite family and friends to sponsor their cat nap through donations. All donations will go directly to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Purina Cat Chow will match the sponsor donations up to $100,000. Donations can be pledged as a flat dollar amount or as a donation for each minute napped.

This October, Purina Cat Chow invites consumers to register at to take a 20-minute cat nap for the cause or sponsor a “cat napper.”  For every registered napper, Purina Cat Chow will make a $2 donation, up to $50,000, to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. In addition, cat nappers are encouraged to secure donations from friends and family to sponsor their nap and Purina Cat Chow will match these donations up to $100,000 – this on top of Purina Cat Chow’s 2010 donation of $200,000 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Inspired by cancer survivors’ stories of the important role that their cats played during their battle with breast cancer, Purina Cat Chow began a relationship with Susan G. Komen for the Cure in 2008 to honor the unique bond between cat owners and their cats.

Companies Go Furry for a Good Cause

Friday, June 25, marked the 12th annual Take Your Dog To Work Day.  Created by Pet Sitters International (PSI) in 1999, Take Your Dog To Work Day (TYDTWDay) celebrates the great  companions dogs make, raises awareness about the benefits of pet ownership and promotes the need for pet adoption.

“People love their dogs and pets enrich our lives in so many ways,” said PSI president Patti Moran. “TYDTWDay
offers an opportunity for pet parents to show off their dogs to co-workers while giving back to the pet community and
promoting a great cause—pet adoption.”

Moran teamed up with pet expert Arden Moore this year to spread the word about the positive effects of pet
ownership—personally and professionally. From promoting weight loss to reducing the risk of cancer, pet ownership
offers specific health benefits as well as improved mood and reduced anxiety.

“Dogs show us how to better ourselves,” said pet expert and TYDTWDay ambassador Arden Moore. “Having a canine
extraordinaire (CEO) in your life can teach you valuable lessons about succeeding at home and in the workplace.”
Visit for more.

Family Fun Event Benefits Pets in Need of Homes

Don’t miss the first annual Pet Fair & Yard Sale, sponsored by the Humane Society of Forsyth County No-Kill Shelter, on Saturday, August 14 at the Cumming Fairgrounds, 235 Castleberry Road in Cumming.  The Pet Fair & Yard Sale promises Family Fun for everyone!  The Yard Sale is from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. – the Pet Fair from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Enjoy pet vendors, a microchip clinic, and pet-related demonstrations/events – plus a variety of exhibit booths, food concessions, and more.  Children will love the moonwalks, rock climbing and other kid-friendly activities.  There is no entry fee for the Pet Fair!

From 6 to 11 p.m., the fun continues with Mutts and Music, featuring a best-dressed dog contest and live music music/entertainment.  Mutts and Music entry is $5 per person, plus $5 for dogs entering the contest.

Got stuff?  If you want to sell items at the Yard Sale and keep the proceeds, you may reserve a space for $25.  Or, you may donate your gently used treasures to HSFC.  For drop-off/pick-up information, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  Want to be a vendor?  The cost for an exhibit booth is $25 or 20 percent of sales, depending on vendor type.

All proceeds from this event benefit the Humane Society of Forsyth County No-Kill Shelter for cats and dogs.  For more information about the Pet Fair & Yard sale, visit or call 770-889-1365.

We asked dog owners enjoying Chastain Park in Atlanta how their pets enrich their lives. Here's what they told us!


chastainMOTS 012 chastainMOTS 009 chastainMOTS 023
Robin with Hero
"We go for longer walks a whole lot more than I used to. A more calming effect comes from my cat, but my dog definitely has me out there more."

George with Harry
"He kind of knows my emotions; he’s there when I need him. And he keeps me exercising a lot taking him out all the time."

Sonja with Gigi
"She’s my little buddy. She just gives unconditional love, and she’s a great part of our family. It’s great for my son. I think pets are really important for kids; it helps them develop empathy and learn to take care of something."


chastainMOTS 001
chastainMOTS 008
chastainMOTS 016
Katie with Becca
"She gets me out here—she needs to run so I’m out here running with her. I can’t imagine my life without a pet; I’ve had one ever since I was a kid. She’ll nudge my running shoes even if it’s my day off. She’s like, 'What are you doing? It’s time to go to the park!'”

Catherine with
Winston and Dakota

"They love just being with us no matter if we’re inside or outside. I take them every time I go for walks or a run. They’re part of the family. They keep me in shape."

Jane with Dixie
"We come out here more because we feel the need to bring [Dixie}. There’s always someone happy to see you when you get home."

Carroll and BocelliPersonal Story Spotlight: Carroll and Bocelli

Carroll Ball always tells people that she didn’t find her beloved 11-year-old Australian Shepherd, Bocelli—he actually found her. And it couldn’t have been at a better time for either of them. It was 6 years ago, and Carroll, then 71, had recently lost her husband of 50 years. Bocelli, who had been turned over to Atlanta Animal Rescue Friends (AARF) after being found as a stray in Cobb County, was dealing with major separation anxiety issues that were making it difficult for him to find the right home for his needs.

When Carroll visited an obedience trainer with her new, rather rambunctious puppy named Bree, Bocelli, who is blind, most likely since birth, was immediately drawn to Carroll; she asked to take him home for the evening. The two bonded quickly, with Bocelli sleeping at the foot of Carroll’s bed that night—the same spot where he now sleeps every night. Through the Silver Paws Program, Carroll adopted Bocelli (and allowed AARF to help her find a more suitable home for Bree, who now lives with an active pet parent who takes her on his travels). The perfectly matched pair became family, and the two are reaping mutual benefits.

“I think he sensed that I needed him as much as he needed me,” Carroll says. “I had spent my whole life caring for people, and I was missing it. I was living alone for the first time in my life, and I needed something—or someone—to care for. When Bocelli found me, suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore. I felt like I was treading water, and he gave me a purpose. ”

According to Carroll, Bocelli’s gentle nature has a calming effect on her, as he effortlessly eases her nerves. He also makes sure that she gets her exercise when she takes him for his daily walks. And his positive influence goes beyond that. “I have made so many friends through him,” explains Carroll, who has become the Silver Paws coordinator for AARF.

“Having a dog offers such wonderful companionship,” Carroll says. “So many seniors are lonely, and they don’t realize how much an animal can mean to them. Bocelli and I both perked up when we met each other, and he has enriched my life in so many ways." To learn more about the Silver Paws Program or find out how you can participate, visit