The Healing Power of Pets: Harnessing the Amazing Ability of Pets to Make and Keep People Happy and Healthy

The Healing Power of Pets: Harnessing the Amazing Ability of Pets to Make and Keep People Happy and Healthy

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786886913
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 02/19/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 290
Sales rank: 504,539
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Dr. Marty Becker is the veterinary contributor to ABC-TV's Good Morning America. His highly regarded weekly newspaper column, "The Bond," is distributed internationally by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. Dr. Becker is also a contributing editor for Dog Fancy and Cat Fancy magazines, and is the chief veterinary correspondent for He is co-author of Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover's Soul and Chicken Soup for the Cat and Dog Lover's Soul. He lives in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

Danelle Morton is a Los Angeles-based journalist who has worked for publications ranging from The New York Times to People, and has served as a foreign correspondent, state capital bureau chief, columnist, and associate bureau chief of People's Los Angeles bureau. She is also the co-author of three books.

Read an Excerpt


The Bond
The Cementing of Science and Soul

I'm the kind of person who bolts out of bed in the morning with his mind already running through the day and weeks ahead. Yet on a Wednesday morning in November of 2000, my body wouldn't cooperate. I leapt from bed as usual, but when my feet hit the ground, they were as numb as if I'd just sleepwalked barefoot through a knee-deep field of snow. When I reached out to steady myself on the bed, I discovered the same lack of sensation from my fingertips to my elbow. Maybe I'd just slept wrong, I tried to convince myself as I pounded to the bathroom on wooden feet.

I flexed my fingers and arms trying to pump feeling into my limbs as I looked myself in the eye in the bathroom mirror. All the while, my doctor self ran through the many major medical problems these symptoms could point to. I was so scared. My older brother Bob had awoken with these same symptoms just three years earlier, and was subsequently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. But I had a nearly week-long trip beginning the next day with commitments in New York, Colorado Springs, and Houston. This year had been pretty tough on the family finances. My wife, Teresa, and I had labeled it the Financial Perfect Storm. Each one of these upcoming meetings was a step toward calming those waters. Push through the pain, I thought; you just don't have time to get sick. I told no one.

As I worked steady through the day, the numbness dissipated and I convinced myself I was getting better. But once I was in New York, the headaches began: intense pressure behind my eyes that radiated pain through my shoulders. I was dosing myself with handfuls of over-the-counter headache remedies, pinching the web of my thumb in an attempt at self-acupressure, and struggling to sleep with a cold rag over my eyes. Nothing spelled relief.

Sleepless in New York, I caught a 6:00 A.M. flight to Colorado Springs. There I met my host, Dr. Jim Humphries, the veterinary contributor for CBS. Dr. Jim knew something was wrong and tried to get me to go to the emergency room. I persuaded him I was feeling much better and, after our meeting, he dropped me at the airport. At the airport I started to stumble. I called Dr. Steve Garner, a veterinary colleague and my friend of four years, whom I wage flying to meet at his seminar in Houston. His alarm at my symptoms really shook me.

At the gate, my cell phone started going off. The first call was from Jim, who said he wasn't convinced I was improving. He wanted to come back and drive me to the emergency room, but I turned him down. Then Steve called to tell me he'd arranged for a friend of his, a neurologist at Baylor University, to see me as soon as I landed. How badly I wanted to go home. I slumped in a seat at the gate, cross-eyed with pain. I pictured Teresa and our children, daughter Mikkel, fourteen, and son Lex, ten, sitting, as we had so many evenings that summer, on the deck of our home in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, surrounded by pets. Our house looks down the throat of a thirty-mile-long glacial river valley. We like to watch the light fade in the evening as herds of deer, elk, and even the occasional moose migrate across the valley floor, while hawks and bald eagles swoop overhead. If I was this sick, I wanted that sight, those smells, my family. I called our family doctor, Dr. Will McCreight, who told me exactly what my heart was saying: come home.

I was on the jetway about to board the plane home when Steve called again. He'd talked to his neurologist friend who believed there might be bleeding in the lining around my brain. "Do not board the plane," he said. The change in pressure on the ascent might kill me. I should go immediately to a hospital in Colorado Springs. I told Steve I was going home, and stepped back from the stream of passengers to pray that I was making the right decision. Then I boarded. The anxiety I felt made the trip one of the longest of my life, but I made it. By the time I landed around eleven that night, Dr. McCreight had arranged for me to see a neurologist in Coeur d'Alene the next morning and booked an appointment for an MRI.

The doctor who examined me unsmilingly offered four possibilities: stroke, brain tumor, multiple sclerosis, or subarachnoid hemorrhage, the official name for bleeding between the linings around the brain. When I went in for the MRI, the staff cautioned me that the test was noisy and claustrophobic. Even some of the local miners got antsy in the MRI tunnel, they said. They asked if I'd like to listen to music during the full-body scan and I chose a CD of gospel hymns. Imagine my trepidation when the first soothing hymn had the lyrics, "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, come home, come home/Ye who are weary come home." Maybe I should have taken my second choice of Credence Clearwater Revival.

The MRI results were the best I could have hoped for, however. I had a simple mechanical problem -- an intervertebral disc in my neck had prolapsed, spilling its contents onto my spinal cord. The discs that cushion the bones of your spine are constructed like a jelly donut: a harder core on the outside, with a softer, jellylike middle. Usually when a disc slips it affects only one side, but mine was more severe, putting extreme pressure across the whole cord. That was what had caused the bilateral numbness. The headaches were from muscle spasms and anxiety. I would need surgery to remove the damaged disc, during which they'd insert a poker chip-size piece of cow bone to keep the correct spacing and fuse the instability in my spine with a titanium plate. My doctor gave me some muscle relaxants for the anxiety and sent me home in a neck brace to await my appointment with the neurosurgeon, which couldn't be scheduled until the end of December, six long weeks away. In the meantime, he advised me to slow down and prepare for a lengthy recuperation.

Although I was relieved that the diagnosis wasn't any of the four conditions I'd feared, I still had a hard time accepting that I had to slow down. When we moved to Bonners Ferry five years earlier, Teresa had named our ranch Almost Heaven because she saw it as an oasis of beauty, goodness, and serenity. We designed family stationery and I added the slogan "Life in the slow lane." But the slogan had become a joke to my family. Ever since we arrived here, I'd worked even harder than before, all the while promising that I was just about to slow down. As soon as I finished one obligation or chased down another opportunity, another presented itself and I was off again. It always seemed more important to take care of business than to take care of myself. In fact, since we moved to this beautiful, peaceful place, I'd gained twenty-five pounds and had developed high blood pressure.

Teresa saw this crisis as an opportunity to force me to be true to my word. She begged me to look through my calendar for the next six months and start saying no to a number of things I'd said yes to. The mere suggestion of that caused me shame. What if I missed something? What if no one missed me? I started calling my friends and colleagues, bemoaning my fate, and in a way asking their permission to say no. Uniformly they told me to slow down and give myself a chance to heal.

Even as Teresa and I walked to the horse barn the next morning to do our chores for our quarter horses, 'Sugar Babe, Chex, Pegasus, and Gabriel, I was arguing with the prognosis. I'd always had perfect health and the capacity to dig deep and tough it out -- the determination I'd called on as an athlete to play while hurt, or as a farm boy whose father needed the crops in before the storm hit, whether or not I had the flu. The doctor said I had to stay put for six weeks or more after the surgery, but I'd always been a fast healer. I'd probably be back up to speed in a month or less, I reasoned.

The horses were galloping in the paddock, anticipating their morning meal. Teresa rolled back the door to the barn to let them into their stalls as I got the pitchfork to hoist a briefcase-size piece of hay bale to feed them. I stuck the fork in and suddenly found that I just didn't have the strength to lift even that meager amount. Ashamed I couldn't complete a task I'd done regularly since I was about five or six, I struggled in silence, using all the tricks I'd learned as a farm kid ordered to hoist something heavier than me. Pride forced me to try, but pride alone couldn't get the bundle to move. I had to ask Teresa to do it for me.

The first snowfall that year was early and very wet, the kind of heavy, dense snow that makes great "soaker" snowballs but can be rough on horses' feet. I could see that our horses were walking gingerly from compacted balls of ice that had wedged right into the center of their hooves. At least I could help them with that, I thought. I got the long-handled screwdriver and leaned into the meat of Sugar Babe's right front leg, flexing her foot to rest it on my upper thigh. Another defeat. I choked up as I admitted to Teresa that I just didn't have the strength to do this, either. Again I had to ask my petite, five-foot, four-inch wife to perform a task I'd done a hundred times.

I held Sugar Babe's reins as Teresa worked on her hoof, but my mind was ten thousand feet above, lost in the profound identity crisis of illness. I saw myself as the endurance champ, the tireless provider. If I am not the things that I do -- -if I have to do different things and do things differently -- who am I? The question was too frightening to answer. Sugar Babe laid her massive head on my shoulder with the gentleness of a baby's touch, and I reached up reflectively to stroke her muzzle. There are few things softer than a horse's muzzle, the animal equivalent of velvet. Horses take in the world through the mouth, and that supple, responsive muzzle serves as their fingers and hands. Sugar Babe pulled up a little and began nibbling over my neck with her vibrissae, tactile hairs similar to a cat's whiskers but of varied lengths and scattered across the surface of her nose and mouth. She roamed until she came to rest at the exact spot on my neck that hurt.

She still had a head of steam from her run in the paddock and her breath shot from her nostrils in forceful ostrich plumes. At 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit, a horse's body temperature is a few degrees higher than ours. Her hot breath on my neck in the cold barn was like a steam treatment. As she settled, I adjusted to the ebb and flow of her breath and felt myself relax for the first time since this soul-shaking experience. I was alive, with my loved ones, and I was home: three simple facts that I had taken for granted and that, as a result, were very nearly lost to me. In that simple way that animals have of bringing you back to your world, Sugar Babe was showing me that my healing would have to start here.

The feeling of Sugar Babe's laying on of hands through the gentle pressure of her muzzle on my neck stuck with me as Teresa and I walked back to the house. Truly I had a burden that was too heavy for me to carry, something that couldn't be shoved aside by cleverness and dogged determination. As uncomfortable as the idea made me, I had to look at this illness not as a defeat, but as a gift -- a chance to repot, renew, recharge myself. The first thing that had to go was the stress.

Teresa and I took out my schedule for the next six months and made a list of all the engagements I'd have to cancel. Once the schedule was clear, we blocked off a lot of family time. Teresa didn't stop at just the visible stress. I have a drawer in my office that is filled to the top with things I want to find a way to do, such as chairing fund-raisers, making speeches, leading the charge for causes, or reviewing a colleague's manuscript. That drawer was now too heavy for me to lift. Teresa took the drawer and ceremoniously dumped its contents straight into the trash. Then she asked for a very specific Christmas present. She begged me to lose twenty-five pounds and get control of my blood pressure.

Lessening stress creates a different kind of anxiety. What exactly was I supposed to do with myself? The cliché "Physician heal thyself" took on an ironic twist for me. I've been a pet lover and animal lover my whole life, and have observed countless times in my years as a practicing veterinarian how a strong relationship with animals often gives people the strength and motivation to reclaim their health after an illness knocks them down. I've spent my professional life celebrating this special relationship that we call "the Bond," the healthy, affection connection between people and their pets that science is only now beginning to appreciate fully. Yet I'd never been really sick; never had to call on pets to point me toward a healthier lifestyle. This Bond that I could describe in passionate detail I'd only felt as an observer. In reality, I didn't have the first idea about how to heal.

Copyright (c) 2002 Dr. Marty Becker

Table of Contents

Preface: The Bond--The Cementing of Science and Soul1
Part 1The Healing Power of Pets21
A Healthy Start--The Power of Childhood Pets23
Untying the Knot of a Troubled Childhood47
Bypass Heart Problems60
Cancer Cures--How Pets Are Giving People a Second Chance78
Chronic Pain--Take Two Pets and Call Me in the Morning99
Sedentary Lifestyle--A Heart-to-Heart Walk111
Hippotherapy--Horse Sense122
Animal Assisted Therapy--The One-Eyed Wonder Drug and Other Animal Healers134
Assistance Animals--I Get by with a Little Help from My Friend145
Seniors--Everyday Miracles from the Love of a Pet164
Part 2The Pet Prescription183
Finding the Best Pet for What Ails You185
Are You Pet-Ready?--Tests and tips to help you define the perfect pet for your health and well being189
Looking for Love in All the Right Places--How to pick the right dog or cat at the shelter or the breeders using the Tripp Tests202
Filling the Perfect Pet Prescription--Pets and their role in some major illnesses: asthma, allergies, aging, arthritis, depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), chronic pain, cancer, diabetes, and heart problems211
Part 3Deepening the Bond225
Getting the Most Out of Your Relationship227
Quiz Time: Grading Your People-Pet Bond229
Health Care Checklist237
Achieving the Ultimate Bond240

What People are Saying About This

Richard Carlson

This may be the best book on pets ever written! . . . warm, compassionate, entertaining and fun to read . . . Highly recommended! (Richard Carlson, Ph.D., author of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff)


Exclusive Author Essay
As a veterinarian, I gradually came to see the link between the health of the pet and the health of its human companion. When an animal’s illness was so severe that we had to hold it in the hospital for an extended stay, frequently it would wither, and we’d have to do tricks to get it to eat. Similarly, if in the grocery store I bumped into humans whose pets had passed away, I’d notice some of the life had left them, too. This alerted me to how interwoven pets were in the social and emotional fabric of the family. In many ways, they reflected the family’s health problems. In families where the pet had a discipline problem, you could bet the kids were uncontrolled as well. Or if the pet was listless and depressed, you could see that conditioned mirrored in one or more family member. The owners of overweight pets frequently sent the dial on the scale spinning. I often found that when I prescribed a weight loss diet and exercise for the pet, the next time I saw the owner, he or she would have shed a few pounds along with the pet. So it became clear to me that maintaining the health of the pet was vital for the social, emotional, and physical health of the whole family, but I didn’t have any scientific evidence to back up my hunches.

The popular press is full of stories of people who through their strong relationship with their animals found a reason to go on living despite their illnesses. What surprised me was finding that this bond was as well founded in science as in emotion. What we crave and receive through an intimate relationship with an animal is intimacy, a nonjudgmental audience who is always happy to see us and rarely shrinks from touch. As we pet our animals our heart rates lower, blood pressure drops, and mood-altering neurochemicals such as phenylethalamine (the active ingredient in chocolate), dopamine, beta-endorphins, prolatin, and oxytocin are released into our bloodstream. A biochemical spa treatment of sorts, these natural substances increase in the bloodstream whenever bonding takes place and stimulate feelings of elation, safety, tranquility, happiness, satisfaction, nurturing, and even love. They are the same substances released when a mother nurses her baby. No wonder people reach for their pets in times of stress!

This interaction is the basis for all the positive health benefits of having a pet in your home, a creature that encourages the intimacy that is missing from so much of our high-tech, low-touch world. What surprised me about what we found as we researched the book was how having another creature so attuned to your rhythms and routine can benefit your health on many levels. Pets can detect small variations in behavior that even your loved ones don’t notice. The animals featured in our book detect a drop in blood sugar in diabetics, the onset of manic behavior in manic-depressives, and early signs of cancer, and even give an alert to an oncoming heart attack. For those trying to stick to an exercise regimen, pets are the best personal trainers there are. The No. 1 factor in adhering to a fitness routine is a supportive family member. Yet a dog doesn’t just offer an encouraging word from time to time like a well-meaning family member might. He knows when you’re supposed to go for a walk and can make your life pretty miserable if you try and weasel out of it.

One of the amazing powers of pets is their ability to attack the chronic morbid condition of sedentary lifestyle with joy instead of grinding discipline. And when you get out into the world with the pet as your companion, you are increasingly more likely to interact with those you see. Studies in the United States and in the United Kingdom showed that those who walked with a dog were three times more likely to chat with passersby, which researchers pointed out is a key to a greater sense of psychological well-being. And time and again, studies of human health -- particularly the great work done by Dr. James Lynch of Johns Hopkins -- demonstrate the punishing health side effects of loneliness. Pets are an important bulwark against the isolation of our increasingly single society.

Another discovery in the book that surprised me is how effective pets can be in preventing allergies. Doctors used to believe that those with allergies couldn’t be around pets, but recent studies indicate that exposure to pets early in life might actually help the body build defenses against allergies and asthma, thereby protecting children from developing reactions rather than triggering them. The pets have to be chosen carefully, however: The book offers detailed advice on choosing between cats and dogs, pets with long hair or short, dark or light coats, and the advantages of male versus female for allergy/asthma sufferers.

We cover a lot of ground in the book, finding ways that pets can help with child rearing, psychological health, heart disease, cancer, and obesity, and keep seniors young and active. We were also able to include some of the latest research on how pets help with the treatment of chronic pain. We wrote extensively about how hospitals, including the National Institutes of Health, regularly prescribe animal-assisted therapy teams to help hospital patients cope with depression. Pets serve as a focus on something outside yourself, and interacting with them and petting them puts you in a calming, meditative state. Research that has come out since the book went to press shows that pets actually increase the building blocks of neurotransmitters in the blood that alleviate depression.

A blend of science and soul, the stories in The Healing Power of Pets will move you emotionally, while the testimonials from physicians and studies from top universities will appeal to your intellect. Yes, you’ve always thought it to be true, and we’ve proven it. (Dr. Marty Becker with Danelle Morton, January 2002)

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The Healing Power of Pets: Harnessing the Amazing Ability of Pets to Make and Keep People Happy and Healthy 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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This is a touching and heart-tugging story about a man's great love and growing appreciation for animals and the powerful healing effects they have upon humans. It would seem that not having a pet makes us less human after reading this wonderful book by Vet Thomas Becker.