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Saturday, February 04, 2006

The healing power of pets can't be ignored

By Lisa Simmons, CONTRIBUTOR

ANIMALS THAT help people through adversity most dramatically represent the depth of the bond we share with our companion animals. Every day we can read a news story about how an animal has helped a human: the boy who came out of a coma when licked on the face by the family's beloved dog, the young woman who regained the ability to speak after her cat was allowed to visit her in the hospital.
Although we recognize the healing power of animals, this gift is all too often denied to those who would appreciate it most — the critically ill or those with compromised immune systems.

A dear friend who was diagnosed with bone cancer was advised by her doctors to get rid of all of her pets because she would be at greater risk of developing infections if they remained in the home. She worked from home and her dog and cat had kept her company for 12 years, following her around the house and even accompanying her on her walks around the neighborhood.

Her treatment was long and painful, and she constantly talked about her pets and how much she missed them. Her husband continued working while she went through her treatment, and even though she had friends and a home health nurse who checked on her every day, her loneliness without her beloved pets was quite apparent. Her husband has since told me that if he had it to do all over again, he would definitely keep their pets where they belonged, by her side.

Research has proved that pets reduce our stress levels and that having pets can actually help increase our self esteem and confidence, all of which results in an enhanced immune system. Pets can help ease the loneliness, pain and sorrow often experienced during an illness through their unconditional love and acceptance.

Even the best-cared-for pet is not guaranteed to remain free of disease, but by working closely with your veterinarian, you can follow some preventive guidelines to keep your pet as healthy as possible. Have your pet tested for parasites and any other medical problems and get them treated right away. Keep them indoors to reduce their risk of contracting any illness or disease, and make sure they are kept up to date on their vaccinations and annual check-ups.

For someone with a compromised immune system, just taking some simple precautions can reduce the risk of infection or disease and allow the pets to stay in the home.

Frequent hand washing after handling a pet and wearing gloves when changing litter boxes or cleaning up after a pet will go a long way in preventing an ill person from contracting a disease or infection. Keeping your dog or cat's nails clipped short will help minimize the risk of being scratched.

Sometimes, certain conditions can make caring for a pet on a daily basis impossible for someone who is ill. Friends, neighbors or relatives may be able to help with that daily care so the pet can remain in the home.

If you don't have someone close who could help take care of your pet, there are many nonprofit organizations today that will gladly lend a hand. They help ill pet owners by providing everything from dog walking and grooming to fostering and even litter box cleaning.

Pet people know how much pets enrich our lives. Working closely with your doctor and veterinarian can enable you to keep your pets with you when you need them the most.

Lisa Simmons is executive director of Pets In Need. Write to Info@PetsInNeed.org or visit http://www.PetsInNeed.org.


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