Our pets can be much more than companions

We’ve always heard that a dog can be a man’s best friend. However, according to an article we ran across by Maggie Koerth for MSN Health and Fitness, pets can do much more than be our companion. Here are some of roles that our loving pets can play in our lives. We’ll hit five of them this week and the other five next week.

1. Dogs as Cancer Detectors

Man’s real best friend may be his best friend’s nose. Dogs’ sense of smell is incredibly powerful, but it wasn’t until recently that scientists began siccing that sense on cancerous tumors. Researchers wondered if canines could be trained to smell the chemical difference between patients with cancer and those without. So far, the results have been promising. Studies show test dogs can accurately pick out patients with lung, breast, ovarian and bladder cancers. In some cases, the pups have hit accuracy rates as high as 97 percent.

But don’t book an appointment with Dr. Beagle just yet. The detection method is still in its early stages of research. To really prove that dog detection can work, researchers will need to show that dogs can identify afflicted patients who haven’t yet been diagnosed by traditional means, as opposed to using previously diagnosed cancer patients and healthy controls. Critics argue the dogs might not be smelling cancer, but instead some olfactory evidence of lifestyle differences between healthy people, and those who are already addressing (and worrying about) an illness.

2. Showing You Whom to Trust

According to some studies, you can learn a lot about your date, including whether they’re likely to engage in abusive behavior, by watching how they treat their pets. A 2007 study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that those who abused pets were more violent and more controlling. In fact, it seems that abuse of animals often overlaps with a tendency toward domestic violence and abuse of children. There’s also evidence that violence toward animals might serve as a sign, in children and adults, that the person is more likely to be violent with humans as well.

3. Calming the Anxious and Soothing the Depressed

Everybody runs into negative feelings at times, including fear, stress, and anxiety, but some people are hit harder than others, and studies show that animals may be able to help. Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to have at least a moderate effect on improving the emotional well-being of humans.

According to a large 2007 study in the journal Anthrozoös, researchers have successfully used animals to calm patients prior to a potentially frightening medical procedure; help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder conquer their fears; and decrease symptoms in people suffering from depression. How does it work? A 2000 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that positive interaction with dogs can give a boost to the brain chemicals that lower blood pressure, which could be the biological basis behind these animal-assisted therapies.

4. Horses Helping the Disabled

Horseback riding can help everyone—from wounded vets to children with cerebral palsy—get back in the saddle when it comes to certain kinds of muscle control. Cerebral palsy patients treated with hippotherapy and recreational horseback riding therapy (which are fancy ways of saying, “spending time with and on horses”) saw improvements in muscle control and motor function, according to a 2006 study published in the journal Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology.

Victims of spinal cord injuries and traumatic head injuries, and those with multiple sclerosis have also been shown to benefit from time spent with pony pals. The key is in the way a rider’s body responds to a horse’s gait. The 2006 study found that riding a horse creates hip movements that mimic those of normal walking and can help people regain better control over their posture and balance.

5. Dogs as Workout Partners

Several studies have shown that dogs can play a role in motivating their owners to be more active, which could lead to improved physical fitness. The key seems to lie in what researchers call “non-exercise walking.” You probably know this activity better as simply “going for a stroll.” In general, it covers any walking that’s not done for transportation or a planned workout.

According to studies like one that was published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity in 2006, dog owners do it more. In fact, the JAPA study found no other type of pet that was linked to increased non-exercise walking and a 2008 Australian study found evidence that getting a dog leads new owners to start walking more. That’s good news for dog lovers. But remember, you only get the benefits if you actually go for the walkies.

Perhaps you’ve experienced some these benefits in pet ownership. If you have, we’d love to hear some of your stories. I know that for us over here at Good Dog Hotel, we feel honored to be able to take care of your dogs, and that we’ve been entrusted to do so. Yes, our pets can be so much more than companions.

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