In Sickness and in Health, Animals Really Are Man’s Best Friend

Donna Photo

The many benefits associated with owning a pet.

By Donna Cardillo, RN

Pets have long been part of the American household. We’ve valued their companionship and their protection. But numerous studies have shown that animals help to keep us physically and emotionally healthy, help us heal, and provide life-enhancing and life-saving assistance. Pets have also been shown to foster independence, decrease loneliness and stress, and improve our mood! How is this so?

Caring for a pet can give some people a sense of being needed and being loved. It can give those who are elderly, sick, disabled or depressed a reason to live. Walking a dog can have physical and psychological benefits and provide opportunities for socializing, exercise and getting outdoors. Taking care of pets helps to take the focus off of the owner’s problems and concerns. And we’re not just talking dogs and cats here. It can be a hamster, bird, horse, pig or ferret. Even watching fish in an aquarium can be calming and distracting from life’s challenges.

Health Benefits 

Studies have shown that caring for a pet can keep blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol down. It can also contribute to better overall health by boosting the immune system and reducing stress which is well known to be a major contributing factor to heart disease and other ailments. Specially trained dogs have even been known to “sniff” illness such as cancer before the person or their care provider are aware of a problem.

The presence of a Fish tank in home can calm both your body and your mind, relieving you from the stress and anxiety that might be holding you back. Having a reef tank in your workspace could actually improve your focus and boost creativity, helping you maximize your productivity. The visual stimulation of an active fish tank may have therapeutic effects as well, giving your mind something else to focus on for a few minutes while you work through an issue.

Pet-assisted Therapy

If you don’t or can’t have an animal of your own, pet therapy is an alternative. This can be as simple as a trained person with a therapy animal coming to your residence (home or health-care facility) and allowing you time to interact with the animal. There are also special stables that offer “hippotherapy,” where children and adults are assisted in riding and caring for horses for movement/muscle therapy, stress relief, and development of cognitive functions. Pet therapy has been very effective in working with abused children and adults, elderly and hospitalized individuals, children with autism, adults with Alzheimer’s, people with multiple sclerosis and so on.

Assistive or Service Pets

Most of us are familiar with seeing-eye dogs for the blind. But there are also specially trained animals (dogs, monkeys and others) that assist those with physical and mental disabilities in everything from fetching dropped objects, preventing someone from falling out of a wheelchair by pushing him/her back up, alerting a hearing impaired person to an alarm and so much more.

These assistive pets are not only the eyes, ears, and hands of a disabled person, but they can also detect subtle changes in behavior, body movement or odors signaling an upcoming seizure, high or low blood sugar levels, migraines, and high blood pressure up to 45 minutes before the event occurs. In so doing, they can forewarn their owner or another person in order to take necessary precautions and avert serious harm.

Practical Aspects to Consider 

If you’re looking to acquire a pet, call a local animal shelter.

If you’d like to have a pet but can’t take care of it, there are people who will walk, feed, groom, and clean up after your dog or other animal for a nominal amount of money. You may even be able to find a volunteer to do that for you, especially if you or your loved one is elderly, sick or disabled.

If having a pet is not possible or practical for you, research pet therapy in your area and make a phone call. Many of these services are available for free. Ask at your local animal shelter, veterinarian office, hospital or nursing home to find this service in your area.

If you think you may be a candidate for an assistive pet, contact a related social service agency such as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for a referral or more information.

You can also do an Internet search.

Whether you have a pet or not, spending time with animals can improve your quality of life … and your health.

Donna Cardillo, RN travels the world helping nurses to be happy in their careers and to reach their full potential. She is fiercely passionate about nursing and about life in general. You may know Donna as “Dear Donna” at Nursing Spectrum and NurseWeek magazines where she writes a regular column and doles out daily online career advice at She is also an “Expert” Blogger at – the first and only nurse blogging there! Donna is author of 3 books: Your First Year as a Nurse, The ULTIMATE Career Guide for Nurses, and a Daybook for Beginning Nurses.  She has received numerous awards and recognitions but is most proud of being named a Diva in Nursing by the Institute for Nursing in NJ for outstanding achievements and excellence in practice. Donna has been referred to as the Ann Landers and the Dr. Phil of the nursing profession. Regardless of who she’s compared to, there’s no denying that she has her own unique style, indomitable spirit, and uproarious sense of humor.

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